Lost art of the Stone Age: The cave paintings redrawing human history
Newly discovered cave art gives fresh insight into the minds of our ancestors – and upends the idea that a Stone Age cultural explosion was unique to Europe
This pig painting from Leang Tedongnge cave on Sulawesi is at least 45,500 years old
IN 1879, an 8-year-old girl made a discovery that would rock our understanding of human history. On the walls of Altamira cave in northern Spain, she spotted stunning drawings of bison, painted in vivid red and black. More striking even than the images was their age: they were made thousands of years ago by modern humans’ supposedly primitive ancestors. Today, nearly 400 caves across Europe have been found decorated with hand stencils, mysterious symbols and beautiful images of animals created by these accomplished artists.
The discoveries led to the view that artistic talent arose after modern humans arrived in the region some 40,000 years ago, as part of a “cultural explosion” reflecting a flowering of the human mind. But more recent evidence has blown this idea out of the water. For a start, , as paintings discovered in a Spanish cave in 2018 have revealed. What’s more, a treasure trove of has dispelled the idea that Europe was the epicentre of creativity. Indeed, discoveries in Africa indicate that humans were honing their artistic skills long before groups of them migrated to the rest of the world.
The real puzzle is why Stone Age cave art seems to be concentrated in a few locations. Could it be hiding elsewhere in plain sight, unnoticed, unrecognised or obscured? Efforts are now under way to track down this missing art, with growing success. The latest discoveries are revealing common themes and hidden codes shared by prehistoric people everywhere. Crack their meaning and we will get an insight into the minds of our ancestors extending back millennia.
“The real puzzle is why Stone Age cave art seems to be in so few locations”
No other living creature represents thoughts and ideas in the form of drawings or symbols. It isn’t just aesthetically pleasing, it also provides a way to share information widely and across generations. A hint that this symbolic behaviour long predates the evolution of our species comes in the form of a by an ancient . The earliest evidence of artistic thinking in is found in Blombos cave in South Africa, where show that people were experimenting with symbols 100,000 years ago. In 2018, the , made with a red ochre crayon on a rock 73,000 years ago, was discovered there too. And there are examples of prehistoric artistry from other parts of Africa, including 100,000-year-old .
Early humans that left the cradle of humanity in Africa and migrated around the world must have taken their artistic talent with them. Yet for more than a century after the discovery at Altamira, almost all known Stone Age cave art was in Europe. That changed in 2014, with an incredible finding from the opposite side of the world.
Aboriginal rock art at Manja Shelter in Grampians National Park Australia
Local people have long known that the limestone caves of the island of Sulawesi, Indonesia, contain many painted images. Modern humans are thought to have , but nobody imagined the art could be very old because ancient paintings seem unlikely to survive in the tropical environment. A team of researchers led by Maxime Aubert, now at Griffith University in Australia, using a technique that is revolutionising our understanding of cave art.
Over time, layers of calcite can slowly build up over sections of otherwise visible images, and uranium-series dating measures the levels of uranium and thorium in these to give a minimum date for when the art was created. Using this technique in seven caves, the researchers found 14 images including a painting of a babirusa (also known as a pig-deer) dating to at least 35,400 years ago, comparable to the oldest images of animals found in Europe. Another, a hand stencil – created by placing a hand on the wall and blowing paint onto it to give a silhouette – was at least 39,900 years old, making it the oldest known hand stencil at that time.
This opened a floodgate to new discoveries in Indonesia. These included a hunting scene created at least 43,900 years ago, which is the oldest known depiction of human beings, and by far the oldest narrative artwork (see “”). “When we found that image, we were absolutely delighted, but when it turned out to be that old, we were almost fainting with joy,” says Adam Brumm, also at Griffith University. In January, his team announced that in another Sulawesi cave dates back at least 45,000 years – the new record for the oldest figurative art.
Lost art of Asia
These findings are the final nail in the coffin for the idea that artistic talents were born in some “creative explosion” in Europe. And the hunt for ancient art in South-East Asia has only scratched the surface. “We have found more than 300 sites in Sulawesi with cave art that is stylistically similar and consistent,” says Brumm. “On the adjacent island of Borneo, there’s more cave art that we’ve dated.” What’s more, thousands of other islands in Indonesia have never been surveyed for paintings. “I think there’s a hell of a lot more rock art out there,” he says. We can expect older dates to emerge soon, too, because Aubert is pioneering a variation of uranium-series dating that uses lasers to pinpoint the first layers of calcite deposited over a painting. New dating techniques are also starting to pin down the age of the wealth of rock art in Australia, which has been almost impossible until now (see “”).
Uranium-series dating is challenging our understanding of the oldest cave art in Europe too. A 2018 study of three Spanish caves by Alistair Pike at the University of Southampton, UK, and his colleagues, revealed that a hand stencil and a rectangular symbol found there are around 65,000 years old. Modern humans didn’t arrive in the region until 20,000 years later, leading the researchers to conclude that . . Yet regardless of who the first European artists were, we now know that around 40,000 years ago, there were two hotspots of cave art on opposite sides of Eurasia.
Despite being 13,000 kilometres apart, these artistic outpourings show some striking similarities. The images are dominated by large herbivores drawn in profile. Hand stencils are very common too. What’s more, the oldest art in both regions was already sophisticated and well developed, making it likely that this artistic style originated in earlier populations. “It must have a much older origin, probably in Africa,” says Aubert. If that is the case, he thinks a trail of earlier ice-age rock art along human migration routes.
Ancient Aboriginal rock art at Kakadu National Park, Australia
Why hasn’t this missing art been found? One possibility is that it never existed. Just because people can make art, it doesn’t mean they will: art may have been something our ancestors only created under particular circumstances. Population size is thought to be a key factor, with a larger group more likely to come up with and spread new ideas. “If art is a social phenomenon, and therefore serves as a way to keep a complex society together, then you would expect that, when groups grow in size or perhaps get more concepts of land ownership and territory, they’re more likely to inscribe that landscape with meaning,” says Paul Pettitt at Durham University, UK. Migrating bands may have been too small and mobile to feel the need to produce much art.
Another possibility is that they did produce art, but it hasn’t survived. If people drew on hides or wood, then these images would have perished long ago. Even on rock, preservation is a problem. The painted caves of France and Spain are anomalies compared with other locations around the world, where humidity crumbles cave walls and trickling water washes away paint or causes a thick layer of calcite to form, obscuring the pigment. “The very old stuff is likely to be less visible to the naked eye,” says Genevieve von Petzinger at the University of Victoria, Canada. “Yet there are now so many high-tech tools that we can use to reveal it.”
A digital enhancement technique called , for example, brings out elements of drawings that are nearly invisible to the naked eye. Developed to detect signals from space, it has been used by NASA to enhance images captured by its Mars rover, Perseverance. Then there is multispectral imaging, which uses different ranges of the light spectrum, from infrared to ultraviolet, to pick up faded traces of red ochre hidden behind layers of calcite. Spectral analysis of pigments can give a “recipe” for the paint used, providing clues about whether different paintings were made at the same time. Such sophisticated imaging techniques have already uncovered many hidden Stone Age images. For example, a high-tech survey of Bernoux cave in the Dordogne region of France, which has been studied by archaeologists since 1932, , including two drawings of mammoths – creatures that are quite rare in the menagerie of depictions.
The human images in this hunting scene are the oldest known
Art is also being uncovered in places where it previously wasn’t thought to exist. Archaeologist Aitor Ruiz-Redondo at the University of Southampton, UK, is at the forefront of this hunt, targeting caves where early humans were known to reside. In 2019, he and his colleagues uncovered the , at Romual’s cave in Croatia. It depicts a bison and an ibex, plus two human-like figures. Last year, he led a survey of , which uncovered a rare depiction of a camel, a mammoth seemingly protecting her calf and unique graphic symbols including inverted trapezoids. The fieldwork was curtailed by the covid-19 pandemic, but Ruiz-Redondo hopes to return soon and says there are many more images to discover. , including a rhinoceros drawn in charcoal some 30,000 years ago; woolly rhinos lived in the region at that time. And there are tantalising hints that images in Mongolia might be equally old.
“The cave art from Indonesia and central, eastern and western Europe has features that look alike,” says Ruiz-Redondo. He thinks they could have a common origin in the Near East, where humans first settled after leaving Africa. With that in mind, he has his eyes set on the Levant for future exploration. Others believe we might yet find the origins of cave art in Africa. To date, the oldest known figurative art there is just 27,000 years old, and even that is disputed. It consists of found in the Apollo 11 cave in Namibia, decorated with images of animals drawn with charcoal and ochre. But most of the continent hasn’t been explored archaeologically, so there could be plenty of cave art yet to be discovered, says Eleanor Scerri at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany.
Now that we know this art is more widespread than was long assumed, and displays consistent characteristics across vast stretches of space and time, the million-dollar question is what these hand stencils, drawings and symbols mean. Over the years, researchers have come up with all sorts of ideas: that the images were related to hunting rituals, sexual symbols or the connection to the spirit world, which today remains an integral part of the lives of many hunter-gatherers. Some doubt that we will ever know. “It’s frustrating,” says Ruiz-Redondo. “It means something for sure, but we cannot solve this question.” But as more examples emerge, people are increasingly optimistic that we can decode at least some of the information embodied in cave art.
“Cave art is now being uncovered in places it wasn’t though to exist”
To that end, Georges Sauvet at the University of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès in France has built a database containing details of more than 4700 drawings, paintings and engravings of animals found in the caves of France and Spain. Studying this wealth of information, he noticed a striking trend: Stone Age people were obsessed with horses. They are the , appearing in 29.5 per cent of the images, compared with 23.3 per cent for bison and 11.1 per cent for deer. Three quarters of all his sites contain at least one horse. Other animals are usually drawn facing to the left. “The horse appears to be the exception,” says Sauvet. Not only do most face right, they are often depicted larger than other animals and in more prominent positions in caves. Excavations show that horses weren’t a major food source for these people, so their fascination with them must have been for other reasons.
The ancient hunter-gatherers of Indonesia were even more obsessed with one particular animal: the pig. A survey of by Yosua Pasaribu at the University of Indonesia found around 80 per cent of the animals depicted were pigs. “These early human cultures were besotted with one species of pig in particular, which is endemic to Sulawesi: the warty pig,” says Brumm.
Neanderthals decorated a Spanish cave 65,000 years ago
Equally fascinating is the lack of depictions of animals that these people would have frequently encountered, such as wolves and foxes in Europe, and small animals such as rabbits that formed a large part of their diet. “Palaeolithic art is not a picture of the environment, but the lifeworld of these ancient hunter-gatherers,” says Sauvet. “It’s a cultural selection of the animals that surround them.”
Decoding graphic marks is even trickier because they are abstract. But large databases and statistical analysis can shed some light on these . “We can find a scientifically sound way to approach the question of meaning,” says von Petzinger, who has created a database of graphic symbols on the cave walls of Europe. She has identified 32 symbols that are used repeatedly. Some, notably lines and dots, are common and found in the oldest art. Others, such as a feather-like shape, originate in one region then spread to new areas. Studying which symbols are placed beside each other, or next to animals, gives some insight into these early experiments with codification. “I think most of us would agree that it is a form of writing,” says Pettitt. “Visually, I see little difference between these [signs] and the earliest Sumerian impressions on clay, which are always interpreted as the earliest writing systems. Presumably these signs are saying something about the animals they are depicted next to.”
However, just like with the symbols that people use to communicate today, the same signs could have had different meanings to the various groups that used them. Meaning could also vary depending on their context, says von Petzinger. Take the lowly dot, a symbol found in most European cave art. “In certain caves, dots may well be path markers. In other cases, they could be some sort of tallying systems,” she says. They can be grouped to form what looks like a depiction of a constellation or, on an animal, could represent a wound, she says. “It’s a very simple character with a huge amount of information embedded in it.” The complex quadrilateral signs found in caves in northern Spain are similar. Sauvet and his colleagues think the variability of details drawn within each of these shapes suggests they were used as .
Cave art at Tarascon-sur-Ariège in the French Pyrenees
“What do all these hand stencils, drawings and symbols mean?”
Can we ever know for sure what messages these Stone Age artists were trying to convey? “Probably not,” says von Petzinger. “But, at the same time, we may be able to tease out some new information.” And the more examples of their work we discover, the more insight we will have into their minds. “We have such a small fraction of what used to exist that every image we can find is a crucial piece of the jigsaw,” she says. “It’s an exciting time.”
Humans may have . Thousands of rock art sites are found there, but dating these artworks is extremely challenging because the geography means there is a lack of the minerals and organic material generally used to establish age. A breakthrough came this year, courtesy of Damien Finch at the University of Melbourne and his colleagues, working with the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation, which represents the traditional owners of the land. They dated images in eight rock shelters in Kimberley, Western Australia. Using radiocarbon measurements from fossilised wasp nests lying beneath and on top of the artworks, they found : a large kangaroo painted between 17,500 and 17,100 years ago.
This record is unlikely to last long, becasue there are already hints of older images. A has been unearthed in 28,000-year-old sediments in an Arnhem Land rock shelter. In Kimberley, a was found in sediments dating back 40,000 years.
One of the most striking things about the oldest cave art is what the painters left out. In European caves, people represent less than 3.3 per cent of the images of animals. They are rare in South-East Asian cave art too. What’s more, whereas animals are depicted with great virtuosity, humans are often stick figures. “In the Palaeolithic world, there were very few humans,” says prehistorian . “They lived in small groups of 20 to 25 people, with the next group maybe 50 miles away. Their world was full of animals, and animals were of much more importance than humans.”
One of the most remarkable cave drawings of the human form is in a limestone cave called Leang Bulu’ Sipong 4 on the island of Sulawesi, Indonesia. It depicts at least eight small, two pigs and four dwarf buffaloes. Painted at least 43,900 years ago, these are the oldest known human figures in art. “They’re almost stick-like, with a human-like body but what seem to be animal heads,” says Adam Brumm at Griffith University in Australia. “One has a bird-like head.” Such human-animal chimeras are found in later cave art, but their presence here is significant. “It’s the earliest known evidence for the human ability to conceive of the supernatural, and that is one of the fundamental requirements for religious thought and belief,” he says.
More on these topics:
Code hidden in Stone Age art may be the root of human writing
Spot the signs: geometric forms can be found in paintings, as at Marsoulas in France
Philippe Blanchot / hemis.fr / Hemis/AFP
When she first saw the necklace, Genevieve von Petzinger feared the trip halfway around the globe to the French village of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac had been in vain. The dozens of ancient deer teeth laid out before her, each one pierced like a bead, looked roughly the same. It was only when she flipped one over that the hairs on the back of her neck stood up. On the reverse were three etched symbols: a line, an X and another line.
Von Petzinger, a palaeoanthropologist from the University of Victoria in Canada, is spearheading an unusual study of cave art. Her interest lies not in the breathtaking paintings of bulls, horses and bison that usually spring to mind, but in the smaller, geometric symbols frequently found alongside them. Her work has convinced her that far from being random doodles, the simple shapes represent a fundamental shift in our ancestors’ mental skills.
The first formal writing system that we know of is the 5000-year-old cuneiform script of the ancient city of Uruk in what is now Iraq. But it and other systems like it – such as Egyptian hieroglyphs – are complex and didn’t emerge from a vacuum. There must have been an earlier time when people first started playing with simple abstract signs. For years, von Petzinger has wondered if the circles, triangles and squiggles that humans began leaving on cave walls 40,000 years ago represent that special time in our history – the creation of the first human code.
If so, the marks are not to be sniffed at. Our ability to represent a concept with an abstract sign is something no other animal, not even our closest cousins the chimpanzees, can do. It is arguably also the foundation for our advanced, global culture.
The first step to check her theory was to fastidiously document the signs, their location, age and style, and see if any patterns emerged. For this, von Petzinger would have to visit as many caves as she could: archaeology’s focus on paintings of animals meant the signs were often overlooked in existing records.
Black tectiforms at Las Chimeneas, Spain
D v. Petzinger
It wasn’t easy or glamorous work. Gaining access to caves in France, where a lot of Stone Age art is located, can be devilishly complicated. Many are privately owned and sometimes jealously guarded by archaeologists. For the full set of symbols, von Petzinger also had to visit many obscure caves, the ones without big, flashy paintings. At El Portillo in northern Spain, all she had to go on was a note an archaeologist made in 1979 of some “red signs”; no one had been back since. At first, von Petzinger couldn’t even find the entrance. Eventually, she noticed a tiny opening at knee level, trickling with water. “Thank God I’m not claustrophobic,” she says. After 2 hours sliding through mud inside the mountain, she found two dots painted in pinkish ochre.
Between 2013 and 2014, von Petzinger visited 52 caves in France, Spain, Italy and Portugal. The symbols she found ranged from dots, lines, triangles, squares and zigzags to more complex forms like ladder shapes, hand stencils, something called a tectiform that looks a bit like a post with a roof, and feather shapes called penniforms. In some places, the signs were part of bigger paintings. Elsewhere, they were on their own, like the row of bell shapes found in El Castillo in northern Spain (see picture below), or the panel of 15 penniforms in Santian, also in Spain.
At El Castillo in Spain, a black penniform and bell-shapes
D v. Petzinger
“Our ability to represent a concept with an abstract symbol is uniquely human“
Perhaps the most startling finding was how few signs there were – just 32 in all of Europe. For tens of thousands of years, our ancestors seem to have been curiously consistent with the symbols they used. This, if nothing else, suggests that the markings had some sort of significance. “Of course they mean something,” says French prehistorian Jean Clottes. “They didn’t do it for fun.” The multiple repetitions of the P-shaped claviform sign in France’s Niaux cave “can’t be a coincidence”, he argues.
Thanks to von Petzinger’s meticulous logging, it’s now possible to see trends – new signs appearing in one region, sticking around for a while before falling out of fashion. Hand stencils, for example, were fairly common in the earliest parts of the Upper Palaeolithic era, starting 40,000 years ago, then fall out of fashion 20,000 years later. “You see a cultural change take place,” says von Petzinger. The earliest known penniform is from about 28,000 years ago in the Grande Grotte d’Arcy-sur-Cure in northern France, and later appears a little to the west of there before spreading south. Eventually, it reaches northern Spain and even Portugal. Von Petzinger believes it was first disseminated as people migrated, but its later spread suggests it then followed trade routes.
The research also reveals that modern humans were using two-thirds of these signs when they first settled in Europe, which creates another intriguing possibility. “This does not look like the start-up phase of a brand-new invention,” von Petzinger writes in her recently published book, : (Simon and Schuster). In other words, when modern humans first started moving into Europe from Africa, they must have brought a mental dictionary of symbols with them.
That fits well with the discovery of a 70,000-year-old block of ochre etched with cross-hatching in Blombos cave in South Africa. And when von Petzinger looked through archaeology papers for mentions or illustrations of symbols in cave art outside Europe, she found that many of her 32 signs were used around the world . There is even tantalising evidence that an earlier human, , deliberately etched a zigzag on a shell on Java some 500,000 years ago. “The ability of humans to produce a system of signs is clearly not something that starts 40,000 years ago. This capacity goes back at least 100,000 years,” says Francesco d’Errico from the University of Bordeaux, France.
Nonetheless, something quite special seems to have happened in ice age Europe. In various caves, von Petzinger frequently found certain symbols used together. For instance, starting 40,000 years ago, hand stencils are often found alongside dots. Later, between 28,000 and 22,000 years ago, they are joined by thumb stencils and finger fluting – parallel lines created by dragging fingers through soft cave deposits.
These kinds of combinations are particularly interesting if you’re looking for the deep origins of writing systems. Nowadays, we effortlessly combine letters to make words and words to make sentences, but this is a sophisticated skill. Von Petzinger wonders whether the people of the Upper Palaeolithic started experimenting with more complex ways of encoding information using deliberate, repeated sequences of symbols. Unfortunately, that’s hard to say from signs painted on cave walls, where arrangements could be deliberate or completely random. “Demonstrating that a sign was conceived as a combination of two or more different signs is difficult,” says d’Errico.
Etched deer teeth from Saint-Germain-de-la-Rivière, France
D v. Petzinger
It was while she was grappling with this conundrum that von Petzinger found out about the necklace of red deer teeth. It was found among other artefacts in the grave of a young woman who died some 16,000 years ago in Saint-Germain-de-la-Rivière, in south-west France. From a description in a book, von Petzinger knew that many of the teeth had geometric designs carved into them. So she travelled from Canada to the National Museum of Prehistory in Les Eyzies-de-Tayac, where the teeth were held, in the hope that they might be a missing piece of her puzzle.
The moment she flipped the first one, she knew the trip had been worthwhile. The X and straight lines were symbols she had seen together and separately on various cave walls. Now here they were, with the X sandwiched between two lines to form a compound character. As she turned each tooth over, more and more decorations were revealed. In the end, 48 were etched with single signs or combinations, many of which were also found in caves. Whether or not the symbols are actually writing depends on what you mean by “writing”, says d’Errico. Strictly speaking, a full system must encode all of human speech, ruling the Stone Age signs out. But if you take it to mean a system to encode and transmit information, then it’s possible to see the symbols as early steps in the development of writing. That said, cracking the prehistoric code (see ““) may prove impossible. “Something we call a square, to an Australian Aborigine, might represent a well,” says Clottes.
For d’Errico, we will never understand the meaning of the symbols without also considering the animal depictions they are so often associated with. “It is clear that the two make sense together,” he says. Similarly, cuneiform is composed of pictograms and counting tallies. A ration, for instance, is represented by a bowl and human head, followed by lines to denote quantity.
Von Petzinger points out another reason to believe the symbols are special. “The ability to realistically draw a horse or mammoth is totally impressive,” she says. “But anybody can draw a square, right? To draw these signs you are not relying on people who are artistically gifted.” In a sense, the humble nature of such shapes makes them more universally accessible – an important feature for an effective communication system. “There’s a broader possibility for what they could be used for, and who was using them.”
More than anything, she believes the invention of the first code represents a complete shift in how our ancestors shared information. For the first time, they no longer had to be in the same place at the same time to communicate with each other, and information could survive its owners.
The quest is far from over. Von Petzinger plans to expand her Stone Age dictionary by adding in the wealth of signs on portable objects, in caves on other continents and maybe even those found beneath the waves (see ““). “We only have part of the picture now. We are on the cusp of an exciting time.”
Geometric marks left alongside murals of animals have attracted the curiosity and scrutiny of archaeologists for decades, although it’s only recently that one researcher, Genevieve von Petzinger, has begun systematically cataloguing them all into a searchable database to try to determine their significance (see main story).
For French prehistorian Henri Breuil, who studied cave art in the early 20th century, the paintings and engravings were all about hunting and magic. In the abstract symbols, he saw representations of traps and weapons – meanings that were intrinsically linked to the larger paintings. In the 1960s, the French archaeologist André Leroi-Gourhan declared that lines and hooks were male signs, whereas ovals and triangles were female.
Some of this interpretation has stuck. Circles and inverted triangles are still often cited in the literature as representations of the vulva. It is worth noting that many of the earlier scholars studying cave art were men, which may have led to gender biases in their interpretations. “It’s interesting that it was predominantly male archaeologists doing this work early on, and there were a whole lot of vulvas being identified everywhere. This could have been a product of the times, but then again, many cultures do place importance on fertility,” says von Petzinger.
Later, South African archaeologist David Lewis-Williams proposed a neuropsychological interpretation for some symbols. Like many of his peers, Lewis-Williams believes that at least some Stone Age art was made during or after hallucinogenic trips, perhaps as part of shamanic rituals. If so, the symbols could simply be literal representations of hallucinations. Some studies suggest that drugs and migraines can both provoke linear and spiral patterns, not unlike those seen in ice age art.
But the sad truth is that without a time machine, we may never really know what our ancestors were communicating with these signs.
Some of the most stunning cave art in Europe was only discovered in 1985, when divers found the mouth of the Cosquer cave 37 metres below the Mediterranean coastline near Marseilles in southern France. Its entrance had been submerged as sea levels rose after the last ice age. Chances are, other similar caves are waiting to be discovered.
So von Petzinger has teamed up with David Lang of OpenROV in Berkeley, California, which makes low-cost, underwater robots. Next year, they plan to use them to hunt for submerged cave entrances off Spain’s north coast. The region is rich in painted caves, many close to the shoreline, so it seems likely that others could be hiding below the waves.