Prehistoric Digital Tracings
Paleolithic macaroni markings
In prehistoric art, "finger fluting" refers to the lines left by fingers on the surface of a cave wall.
They are also known as digital tracings, finger markings, or 'macaroni'.
The term was first coined by the Australian archaeologist Robert G. Bednarik, who also invented the term cupules.
Usually these finger markings (or drawings) are found in a soft substance called moonmilk - a creamy precipitate of limestone found inside limestone and dolomite caves - or else in soft clay.
Archaeological studies have shown that these markings have been left by young children (aged 2-5), as well as adults.
According to sign expert Genevieve von Petzinger, who has visited hundreds of caves in the area of Franco-Cantabrian art, finger fluting is one of only 32 abstract sign types present in Upper Paleolithic art, between 40,000 and 10,000 BC.
In France, finger flutings appear in 23 caves - or approximately 15 percent of the total.
This sign type is found in all four periods of the Upper Paleolithic: the Aurignacian (40,000-30,000 BC) the Gravettian (30,000-20,000 BC), the Solutrean (20,000-15,000 BC), and the Magdalenian (15,000-10,000 BC).
Aurignacian sites of finger fluting are located in the Ardèche and near the Mediterranean.
The Gravettian sites are more dispersed, with one site in the north, a sizable cluster in the Périgord, another site in the Pyrénées, and another near the Mediterranean.
There are three sites from the Solutrean, and they are equally dispersed, with one site in the Périgord, one in the Pyrénées, and one in the Ardèche.
The Magdalenian sites feature two large clusters: one in the Périgord/Lot region and the other in the Pyrénées. There is also a single site in the north and another in the Ardèche.
According to Petzinger, this sign type is found in the following paleolithic caves:
"Finger fluting" is present in the French Pyrénées region from the Gravettian through to the Late Magdalenian - a span of almost 20,000 years.
From here, it must have spread across the border into Cantabria.
Flutings were first identified at Altamira Cave in Antillana del Mar, but then a 2013 study by Leslie Van Gelder found that 10 of 12 selected caves in Cantabria also had finger flutings, including El Castillo Cave and Las Chimenas (both at Puente Viesgo) and the Aitzbitarte Caves in the Basque region.
Outside Europe, the most famous archaeological site with digital tracings is Koonalda Cave (18,000 BC) on the Nullarbor Plain, South Australia.
For more about the chronology of handprints and finger markings in caves, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).
Similar to positive and negative handprints, the meaning of finger fluting remains obscure.
Was it simply a form of cave doodling? Or did it have a deeper meaning?
The youthful status of the artists suggests the former. On the other hand, most decorated caves tended to be unoccupied sanctuaries, more suited to cultural and/or spiritual ceremonies of some significance.
Was it a primitive attempt to communicate - a form of writing?
Some experts believe it's futile to speculate without much more information about the cultural context of these markings.
Why? Because there are simply too many possible explanations.
Besides, there is absolutely no hard evidence to prove or disprove any hypothesis. It's like trying to guess the name of the cave artist's sister!
For more information about abstract signs and ideomorphs in Stone Age caves, see the following articles:
(1)"Making the Abstract Concrete: The Place of Geometric Signs in French Upper Paleolithic Parietal Art." (2005) (Thesis) Genevieve von Petzinger. University of Victoria, Canada.
(2) "Paleolithic Finger Flutings and the Question of Writing." Leslie Van Gelder. The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness and Culture. Volume 7, 2014 - Issue 2.