Since 2001, Leslie has been actively involved in the study of Upper Paleolithic cave art in the form of finger flutings — lines drawn with hands and fingers on the soft walls of caves. This work began with her late husband and research partner,  Kevin Sharpe, who had begun his research on flutings in Koonalda Cave, South Australia in the early 1970s. Leslie brought her background in Native American Studies (M.A.) and Place Studies (Ph.D.) to the questions Kevin had been exploring. 

Beginning in 2001, Leslie and Kevin started to work together in Rouffignac Cave, in the Dordogne Region of France. Over the next seven years, until Kevin’s death in 2008, they worked to develop methodologies for the study of finger flutings as none previously existed. Their work emphasized a forensic method by which one could identify unique individuals in the cave. This method led to the discovery of children as finger fluters in Rouffignac, Gargas, Las Chimeneas, El Castillo, and Koonalda caves, as well as the identification of both men and women as finger fluters. It has also shown that people entered and marked the walls of the caves in very small groups, and that there does not seem to be evidence for large numbers of individuals engaging in fluting in any of the European caves. Through this research questions have been raised, and yet not yet answered, as to whether or not some of it could be a form of writing or meaningful communication. 

Since Kevin’s death, Leslie has continued this work, broadening the research in 2012-3 with Jessica Cooney, to include studies of twelve Cantabrian Caves. In 2014, working on a team led by Keryn Walshe of the South Australian Museum, she began studying Koonalda Cave. In the next 10 years she hopes to complete a comprehensive study of all of the Upper Paleolithic fluted caves in the world and through this to learn more about the unique individuals who left their mark many thousands of years ago. 

Her archaeological interests focus largely on the lives of Upper Paleolithic hunter-forager peoples, with an emphasis on the role of children as found within their cultures. In 2014 she and April Nowell of the University of Victoria will lead a Wenner-Gren sponsored Symposium on the Archaeology of Children and have now become research partners working together in the caves in Europe. 

She regularly gives lectures on Cave Art and her research to interested groups. Copies of her published papers can be found here, as well as, at this link, press about her work. Selected images from the caves in which she’s worked can be found on the images page. If you are interested in having Leslie come speak about cave art or her research, contact her at 

© Leslie Van Gelder 2017