Entoptics or Doodles: Children of the Cave

There was a time when Paleolithic cave paintings were construed primarily through the lens of “art,” an interpretive stance which assumes that at least some Paleolithic peoples were “artists” who painted for pleasure. Because this lens is so subjective (and creative), all manner of interpretations were offered. Whether prosaic or fanciful, this approach raised troubling questions.

Aside from the usual concerns about over interpretation, some wondered whether there was any justification for assuming that Paleolithic people had an essentially modern aesthetic category which might be called “art.” If they didn’t, it would follow that artistic interpretations of the cave paintings were just that and shed little light on Paleolithic minds.

Frustrated by the sense that we weren’t getting any closer to understanding Paleolithic symbols, some began searching for alternatives. One of the more compelling came from cognitive archaeologist David Lewis-Williams. Having studied rock art around the world, Lewis-Williams noticed that certain kinds of symbols regularly appeared across time and space. This was an enigma, given that the peoples producing these recurring symbols had not been in contact with one another. These symbols were not, in other words, the result of cultural diffusion.  Lewis-Williams calls these symbols “entoptic forms”:

What could account for this similarity of forms in rock art around the world? Lewis-Williams argues, with considerable force, that such images are the result of a universal cognitive architecture. Our brains are constructed in a particular way to process visual images and carry out other sensory related functions. When we experience altered states of consciousness (“ASC”) and reach a stage just before full blown hallucination, the mental images we generate are similar across time and space. These images are entoptic forms.

We know from ethnography and ethnohistory that in non-state societies, ASC is often the province of shamans. With this in mind, Lewis-Williams argues that entoptic forms are related to shamanic practices. Although we can’t know what kind of cultural meaning the symbols had or were assigned, we could at least link them to ASC and shamans.

If we don’t go any further, the argument is fairly parsimonious and anchored in shared biology. Lewis-Williams, however, goes further. He contends that shamans were largely responsible for the European cave paintings and that access to the caves (and images) was restricted. He sees in this an emerging social complexity and stratification, whereby shamans are privileged and powerful. Although this is plausible it is also speculative. There is little evidence for emerging complexity or stratification in the Upper Paleolithic archaeological record. It is bootstrapping to argue that because shamans (may have) made the paintings, shamans (may have) had more power.

While the functional linkage between shamans-ASC-entoptics and ritual surely holds in some or even many cases, it is looking less likely in others. In 2004, Kevin Sharpe and Leslie Van Gelder suggested that 13,000 year old “flutings” inside Rouffignac Cave, France were made by children. In 2006, Sharpe and Van Gelder experimentally confirmed these findings and found that children between 2 and 5 years of age made these markings:

This year a Cambridge University doctoral student in archaeology, Jessica Cooney, discovered that children were responsible for even more “art” at Rouffignac than was previously thought. In a recent interview with History (which includes a slide show), Cooney discussed her findings:

What I’ve found in Rouffignac is that they are screaming to be heard — the presence of children is everywhere in the cave, even in the passages furthest from the entrance. There are no areas in Rouffignac with flutings where we find adults without children, and vice versa.

Many theories about cave art point to shamanism or ritual use. While I don’t rule that out, I don’t think that that’s necessarily the case for all caves. With children involved, it could have been one of those reasons but also very likely could have been play or a time for practicing art, or simply an exploration of the landscape.

If we didn’t know that young children made these markings, it would be tempting to attribute them to shamans experiencing ASC. There are some obvious resemblances between entoptic forms (see chart above) and the childrens’ markings at Rouffignac. While one could argue that the children were shaman apprentices being tutored in ASC and entoptics, this amounts to special pleading. I can’t think of any ethnographic or ethnohistoric instances of children this young being trained as shamans or inducing ASC.

These findings also call into question the often made argument that the deepest, darkest recesses of caves were reserved for experienced shamans (with privileged access to the spirit world) undergoing the most intense ASC. If children were in these dark zones, it is hard to argue for restricted access or shamanistic exclusivity.

The most likely or parsimonious interpretation of these symbols is the one given by Cooney: play. If children were doodling “entoptics” in the cave with their parents, it suggests that “artistic” interpretations of these symbols deserve reconsideration. All in all, this research serves as a good reminder that not everything produced by Paleolithic peoples requires a utilitarian or functional explanation.


Lewis-Williams, David, & Dowson, T.A. (1988). The Signs of All Times: Entoptic Phenomena in Upper Palaeolithic Art Current Anthropology, 29 (2), 201-245

Sharpe, Kevin, & Van Gelder, Leslie (2006). Evidence for Cave Marking by Paleolithic Children Antiquity, 80 (310), 937-947


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13 thoughts on “Entoptics or Doodles: Children of the Cave

  1. J.I. Smith

    Interesting article, but to me your interpretation seems a little myopic. The notion of childhoold, as being separate from adulthood, is a Western phenomenon which came about when adults were forced to work in sordid factories and child labour laws thus came about (in earlier agricultural societies, children and adults would work together and there was therefore no division). So the paintings could be the result of play, but the average hunter gatherer had much more free time than the average modern European or American, so the art could equally well be result of adults making their own entertainment to pass the time.

  2. Cris Post author

    I probably should have been more clear about the recent authors’ methods. They use an array of measurements which correlate quite well with ages; they have confirmed these measurements using children and had these children paint, draw, and “sculpt” to verify the array. Incredibly, they are able to determine not just age ranges, but perhaps the actual year or age itself.

    Thus, they think one girl was 5, and another was 2. In all cultures of which I am aware, past and present, ages 2 and 5 are considered something like “childhood.” These lines and drawing weren’t made by adults, unless the adult was suffering from a pathology that made the adult the size of a 2 year old.

    This issue aside, there is a biological concept of “childhood” which is an essential part of life history theory and research. Barry Bogin’s work on biological life phases is a good starting point for learning about this.

    Having said all this, I agree there are varying cultural ideas about what constitutes “childhood” and these surely change over time.

  3. Bruce P

    Interesting discussion. Very enjoyable and stimulating.
    My initial reaction to the entopic form interpretation is that too much is being made of them. Straight lines, circles, wavy lines, zig-zag lines, parallels… these are forms we humans have seen everywhere everyday all throughout man’s existence. The human mind is extraordinarily capable of extracting patterns in nature. The resemblance to fingerpaintings is striking.
    Caves are safe places, generally speaking. A cave of sufficient size would be a terrific nursery and would require fewer people to stand watch over their charges, leaving more hands for foraging.
    I tend to agree with the parsimonious approach, given the data.

    However, I wonder why you assume that the artists were girls.

    As to ‘childhood’; every culture I know recognizes that humans from birth to puberty are not properly adult. Just because children are given labors or responsibilities that modern Westerners today view as being ‘adult’ in nature doesn’t mean that societies, modern and prehistoric, didn’t recognize the existence of ‘childhood’.
    Days were spent in the arduous tasks of merely existing. An existential problem for any society is how to provide for the unproductive ‘consumers’ without damaging the health of the society itself. Finding ways for the youngest to contribute to the society’s good is an imperative when life is day-to-day.

    The concept of ‘play time’ in association with childhood is primarily a modern construct born of leisure time, affluence, and technology.

  4. Bruce P

    btw I see the genesis of your assertion regarding the children’s gender. I am surprised that humans exhibit such dimorphism at such young ages.

  5. Cris Post author

    It is surprising isn’t it? I’ve never looked at average dimorphic measurements in the first few years, but they seem to be significant.

  6. Cris Post author

    Have you read any of David Lewis-Williams books or articles that assess entoptics? If not, I highly recommend him. He makes a strong case for interpreting these form specifics, which are found around the world, widely spread in both time and space, as the result of what people “see in their minds eye” when experiencing ASC. Lewis-Williams supports his argument by noting that the exact same forms can be induced in lab settings and people see these same things, and has gathered an enormous amount of ethnographic data from shamans who claim they “see” these very kinds of forms. I’ve never really had much doubt that Lewis-Williams is right about entoptics and ASC.

    On the concept of “play,” there surely is a culturally constructed aspect to it, but mammalogists, primatologists, and other scientists assert that “play” serves biological functions and may have been targeted by selection. Mammals care for young who learn from parents. This learning requires “play.” So I don’t think play itself is a modern or social construct, but the forms of play are.

  7. Steven Doyle

    Has anyone heard of Carl Jung? That avenue needs exploring. I grew up in Alaska (Nome)some 60 years ago when the King islanders still practiced their traditional subsistence life. The children I played with were those children and they certainly had time for play and were very creative with what was available. I’ve worked with quite a few shamans as well. Life is integrated in such cultures. Not at all like our culture and the lenses you look through mean you miss most of what is going on. Most native peoples I’ve lived with told me they lied to academics who came to study them. You have to immerse yourself in a culture to really understand it. None of the abovve gives me the sense that these people have done so.

  8. Bruce P

    By the concept of ‘playtime’, I am trying to say that modern people have the luxury of separating play from work. Earlier societies perhaps thought of ‘play’ as an element of ‘work’. I am not trying to state that kids didn’t play. Any society with children and free time will find that kids will be kids. In earlier societies…and this is just an hypothesis… children’s play was more in the form of ‘training’ for adulthood. In modern societies ‘play’ is more about entertainment and escape.

    Steve, I studied Jung while getting my degrees in Psychology and Philosophy.
    Who are “these people” to whom you refer?

  9. Cris Post author

    Certainly “play” in pre or non-state societies would have largely been structured around things that might be useful or functional a bit later in life. There are several good books on historic Native Americans and childrens’ games and play which show this. These books also show that some of the “play” doesn’t appear to be directed toward any such functionality or pragmatism.

    Play, in the biological sense of the word, is often about developing social skills, which are of course incredibly important or even necessary.

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  11. M. Parker

    Hey Cris,

    I’m an environmental archaeologist in the U.S. and I just came across your blog by accident. I realize this is a dated blog entry, and I’m not sure if you’ve seen this or not, but relatively recently archaeologists documented psychotropic plants growing beneath rock art panels in the Southwest, thought it may be of interested to you:



  12. Cris Post author

    Hi Megan — I did in fact see that article but thanks for sharing with other readers. It’s fascinating stuff!

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