Did Prehistoric Children Make Figurines Out of Clay?

Fingerprints and scratch marks found in artifacts in the Czech Republic suggest youngsters of the Upper Paleolithic used the soil like Play-Doh, according to a pending new study

Ancient Lion and Woman Figurine
Two sides of a single ceramic lion's head and a female figurine from Dolni Vestonice Illustration by Emily Lankiewicz / Becky Farbstein with permission from Martin Oliva at the Moravian National Museum

Roughly 30,000 years ago in what is now the Czech Republic, children likely sat digging clay from the ground where they lived, using it to form tiny ceramic animals and people. When the children were called away, perhaps to eat a meal, they left the completed figurines, assorted legs and heads, and undefined objects scattered on the ground.

Some were later fired in the hearth, and some were left to the elements, according to a team of archaeologists who have submitted a paper about this example of prehistoric play to PLOS One that is currently under review.

“I think the evidence they’re looking at is incredibly strong, and it is a really plausible explanation for what they’re finding,” says Jane Baxter, an anthropologist at DePaul University not involved with the study, and the author of The Archaeology of Childhood. “We are trying to understand our ancestors and … how we got here. These kinds of interpretations that create spaces for us to think about the fact that these were communities of people doing human activities and interacting with one another are essential.”

The oldest known ceramics come from a handful of sites in the Czech Republic and date back to about 28,000 B.C.E., roughly 10,000 years after the Neanderthals went extinct. A now iconic figure of a woman and assorted ceramics were found at a Czech site called Dolni Vestonice in 1925. Additional anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figurines were found over the ensuing decades, and in 2002 fingerprints were discovered on many of the objects.

April Nowell, a paleolithic archeologist and co-author of the study who specializes in Ice Age children, says that while writing her book Growing Up in the Ice Age in 2020, she realized that though much was known about children during the period, gaps also needed to be filled.

While she was writing, she noticed that a large part of the archeological record contains information about children learning to make stone tools and making art, but information about craft production by children was missing.

Nowell says that in other times and places children were very active in ceramic production. Evidence of children practicing the activity come from sites in Egypt dating to 1800 to 1700 B.C.E. and Early and Middle Bronze Age sites in England dating back to 1500 to 1150 B.C.E. Because children can safely get into ceramics at a very young age simply by playing with clay, Nowell hypothesized that at least some of the ceramics at the Czech sites were made by kids.

She reached out to Becky Farbstein, an independent scholar and expert on Ice Age ceramics who had done extensive studies on the objects from the Czech sites. The two conducted the first systematic study of Farbstein’s data, including high-resolution photographs, of 489 ceramic artifacts to see if they could find evidence of novices making the ceramics—and if they could tell whether the novices were children.

Farbstein’s research focuses on Paleolithic portable art, but she goes beyond examining solely what objects are or how they look. She also studies how the objects were made and what that tells us about their significance within a society.

She and Nowell looked at the size of the objects, as smaller hands tend to make smaller figures. They checked for asymmetry, whether or not the figures were the same on both sides. And they also inspected the difficulty of the steps taken to make the figure.

Art made from mammoth ivory, bone, antler and stone have also been found at the sites. Farbstein explains that this is significant because these materials would have to have been collected from the broader landscape and would have involved people working together to move them back to the sites.

In contrast, the ceramics are made from clay from within the sites that could have been dug up by the makers. Farbstein says children were more likely to use material they could easily get themselves, rather than objects obtained by a hunting or scavenging party. She adds that there is much more diversity and inconsistency in the ceramic artifacts than in the ivory, bone and antler art—one of the indicators that they were likely made by children.

The figurines were made near a hearth, and then fired and left there, whereas objects made from bone, ivory and antler were used all over the sites and included in burials. “Not one piece of ceramic has been found in a burial,” Nowell says. “So it looks like the kids are practicing, experimenting and playing with clay and then leaving it behind when they are done.”

She adds that some objects may have been fired so the children could learn that step or to preserve them. Several unfired little limbs and nondescript objects were also found at the site, which may have just been made for practice. “So, I think that what it shows us is that we’re getting the whole swath or the whole range of learning through play that goes on,” Nowell says.

In addition, in previous studies, scratch marks and fingerprints found on the objects were determined to belong to children between the ages of 6 and 10 and adolescents between the ages of 10 and 15.

Nowell and Farbstein’s work is representative of the shifting attitude among archeologists toward the importance of studying children and the role they played in prehistoric societies. Izzy Wisher, an archeologist who focuses on Upper Paleolithic cave art in Spain, says the Victorian-era belief that children should be seen and not heard may have influenced the scientific discipline.

“What we’re trying to do is change that narrative a little bit and say, ‘Well, actually, [Paleolithic societies] had children, and those children were playing and doing their thing, and they had a rich material culture and a rich way of living,’” says Wisher, who was not involved in the study. “It wasn’t just this kind of harsh, brutish lifestyle and actually was far more similar to how maybe we are today.”

Baxter says that archaeology often approaches the question of how we arrived at the here and now through big topics like agriculture and migration. However, a lot of how a culture changes and develops takes place on very intimate scales. For example, societies can shift based on knowledge children bring into adulthood. “Those smaller scales of family and community and individual intergenerational interactions are critical,” she says.

Societies have always moved forward through the transfer of knowledge, but not every bit of information gets transferred from one generation to the next. Children and teens are the ones who decide what gets carried to the next generation, which makes them the original influencers, Nowell says. “That’s why studying kids and teens in the Ice Age is super exciting, because we often underestimate their contributions to the archeological record, but, in fact, we can see that through the choices they make, they really influence the direction of human cultural evolution.”

Learning about children from past societies can also help connect us to those groups. “I don’t know what it meant to be a potter in the Bronze Age or a pharaoh in the fourth dynasty or a slave under Nebuchadnezzar,” Baxter says, but if she’s shown what a child was doing in any of those times and places, she can imagine a similar experience.

This past spring, Nowell was in Spain to view Ice Age cave handprints. She was waiting to descend when a group of schoolchildren emerged from the cave into the sunlight laughing and joking. “And I thought, yeah, that’s what the Upper Paleolithic sounded like,” she says. “That’s what we’re missing from our reconstructions.”

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