Gray painting on walls 2018

Cave paintings are a type of (which category also includes , or engravings), found on the wall or ceilings of . The term usually implies , but cave paintings can also be of recent production: In the cave of northern Australia, the oldest paintings certainly predate 28,000 years ago, while the most recent ones were made less than a century ago.

The oldest known cave paintings are close to 40,000 years old (), found in both the in western Europe, and in the (, Indonesia). The oldest type of cave paintings are hand stencils and simple geometric shapes; the oldest undisputed examples of cave paintings are somewhat younger, close to 35,000 years old. A 2018 study claimed an age of 64,000 years for the oldest examples of (non-figurative) cave art in Iberia, which would imply that production by rather than .


Nearly 340 caves have now been discovered in France and Spain that contain art from prehistoric times. Initially, the age of the paintings had been a contentious issue, since methods like can produce misleading results if contaminated by samples of older or newer material, and caves and rocky overhangs (where is found) are typically littered with debris from many time periods. But subsequent technology has made it possible to date the paintings by sampling the pigment itself, torch marks on the walls, or the formation of carbonate deposits on top of the paintings. The subject matter can also indicate chronology: for instance, the depicted in the Spanish cave of Cueva de las Monedas places the drawings in the last Ice Age.

The oldest known cave painting is a red hand stencil in Maltravieso cave, . It has been dated using the uranium-thorium method to older than 64,000 years and was made by a . The oldest date given to an animal cave painting is now a pig with a minimum age of 35,400 years, at Timpuseng cave in Sulawesi, Indonesia.

The earliest known European figurative cave paintings are those of in France. These paintings date to earlier than (Upper Paleolithic) according to dating. Some researchers believe the drawings are too advanced for this era and question this age. However, more than 80 radiocarbon dates had been obtained by 2011, with samples taken from torch marks and from the paintings themselves, as well as from animal bones and charcoal found on the cave floor. The radiocarbon dates from these samples show that there were two periods of creation in Chauvet: 35,000 years ago and 30,000 years ago. One of the surprises was that many of the paintings were modified repeatedly over thousands of years, possibly explaining the confusion about finer paintings that seemed to date earlier than cruder ones. In 2009, discovered drawings in Coliboaia Cave in Romania, stylistically comparable to those at Chauvet. An initial dating puts the age of an image in the same range as Chauvet: about 32,000 years old.

In Australia, cave paintings have been found on the plateau showing megafauna which are thought to have been extinct for over 40,000 years, making this site another candidate for oldest known painting; however, the proposed age is dependent on the estimate of the extinction of the species seemingly depicted. Another Australian site, Nawarla Gabarnmang, has charcoal drawings that have been radiocarbon-dated to 28,000 years, making it the oldest site in Australia and among the oldest in the world for which reliable date evidence has been obtained.

Other examples may date as late as the Early Bronze Age, but the well-known style seen at in France (c. 15,000 BCE) and in Spain died out about 10,000 BCE, coinciding with the advent of the . Some caves probably continued to be painted over a period of several thousands of years.

The next phase of surviving European prehistoric painting, the , was very different, concentrating on large assemblies of smaller and much less detailed figures, with at least as many humans as animals. This was created roughly between 10,000 and 5,500 years ago, and painted in rock shelters under cliffs or shallow caves, in contrast to the recesses of deep caves used in the earlier (and much colder) period. Though individual figures are less naturalistic, they are grouped in coherent grouped compositions to a much greater degree.

Subjects, themes and patterns[]

The most common subjects in cave paintings are large wild animals, such as , , , and , and tracings of human hands as well as abstract patterns, called . The species found most often were suitable for hunting by humans, but were not necessarily the actual typical prey found in associated deposits of bones; for example, the painters of Lascaux have mainly left reindeer bones, but this species does not appear at all in the cave paintings, where species are the most common. Drawings of humans were rare and are usually schematic as opposed to the more detailed and naturalistic images of animal subjects. One explanation for this may be that realistically painting the human form was "forbidden by a powerful religious taboo." Kieran D. O'Hara, geologist, suggests in his book Cave Art and Climate Change that climate controlled the themes depicted. Pigments used include red and yellow , , and . Sometimes the silhouette of the animal was incised in the rock first, and in some caves all or many of the images are only engraved in this fashion, taking them somewhat out of a strict definition of "cave painting".

Similarly, large animals are also the most common subjects in the many small carved and engraved bone or ivory (less often stone) pieces dating from the same periods. But these include the group of , which have no real equivalent in cave paintings.[]

Hand stencils, made by placing a hand on the wall and blowing pigment at it (probably through a pipe of some kind), form a characteristic image of a roughly round area of solid pigment with the uncoloured shape of the hand in the centre, which may then be decorated with lines or dashes. These are often found in the same caves as other paintings, or may be the only form of painting in a location. Some walls contain many hand stencils. Similar hands are also painted in the usual fashion. A number of hands show a finger wholly or partly missing, for which a number of explanations have been given. Hand images are found in similar forms in Europe, Eastern Asia and South America.

Theories and interpretations[]

interpreted the paintings as to increase the abundance of prey.

Another theory, developed by and broadly based on ethnographic studies of contemporary societies, is that the paintings were made by paleolithic . The shaman would retreat into the darkness of the caves, enter into a trance state, then paint images of his or her visions, perhaps with some notion of drawing out power from the cave walls themselves.

R. Dale Guthrie, who has studied both highly artistic and lower quality art and figurines, identifies a wide range of skill and age among the artists. He hypothesizes that the main themes in the paintings and other artifacts (powerful beasts, risky hunting scenes and the representation of women in the ) are the work of adolescent males, who constituted a large part of the .[] However, in analyzing hand prints and stencils in French and Spanish caves, Dean Snow of Pennsylvania State University has proposed that a proportion of them, including those around the spotted horses in Pech Merle, were of female hands.

Paleolithic cave art by region[]

Further information:


See also:

Well-known cave paintings include those of:

  • , Spain (40.000 y.o.)
  • , near , France (35,000 y.o.)
  • , , , Spain (30,000 y.o.?)
  • , France (28,200 y.o.)
  • , with an entrance below near (27,000 y.o.)
  • , France (27,000 y.o.)
  • , France (25,000 y.o.)
  • , near , France (25,000 y.o.)
  • , France (17,000 y.o.)
  • , France (17,000 y.o.)
  • , in the Valley, France (17,000 y.o.)
  • , near , , Spain (15,500 y.o.)
  • , in , France (15,000 y.o.)
  • , in , , France (13,600 y.o.)
  • , Bulgaria (10,000 y.o.)
cave painting of a , Font-de-Gaume, France

Other sites include , , England (14,500 ys old cave etchings and discovered in 2003), in (29,000 y.o. art?), and in Russia (16,000 y.o. art).

Rock painting was also performed on cliff faces, but fewer of those have survived because of . One example is the rock paintings of (3000–2500 BC) in the area of Finland.

When first encountered the paintings of the , , Spain in 1879, the academics of the time considered them hoaxes. Recent reappraisals and numerous additional discoveries have since demonstrated their authenticity, while at the same time stimulating interest in the artistry of peoples.

East and Southeast Asia[]

Cave of Pettakere, Bantimurung district (kecamatan), South Sulawesi, Indonesia. Hand stencils estimated between 35,000 and 40,000 years old[23]

Originating in the Paleolithic period, , Mongolia, includes symbols and animal forms painted from the walls up to the ceiling. Stags, buffalo, oxen, ibex, lions, Argali sheep, antelopes, camels, elephants, ostriches, and other animal pictorials are present, often forming a palimpsest of overlapping images. The paintings appear brown or red in color, and are stylistically similar to other Paleolithic rock art from around the world but are unlike any other examples in Mongolia.

In the in are famous for their hand prints. About 1,500 negative handprints have also been found in 30 painted caves in the Sangkulirang area of Kalimantan; preliminary dating analysis as of 2005 put their age in the range of 10,000 years old. A 2014 study based on dated a Maros hand stencil to a minumum age of 39,900 years. A painting of a was dated to at least 35.4 ka, placing it among the oldest known figurative depictions worldwide.

The of contain 11,000-year-old paintings and many rock tools.


Main article:

The exhibit the earliest traces of human life in India. The earliest paintings on the cave walls are believed to date to about 30,000 years ago. The most recent painting, consisting of geometric figures, date to the . Executed mainly in red and white with the occasional use of green and yellow, the paintings depict the lives and times of the people who lived in the caves, including scenes of childbirth, communal dancing and drinking, religious rites and burials, as well as indigenous animals.

Southern Africa[]

Cave paintings found at the in are estimated to date from approximately 25,500–27,500 years ago.


Significant early cave paintings, executed in , have been found in , Australia. Ochre is not an , so of these pictures is often impossible. Sometimes the approximate date, or at least, an , can be surmised from the painting content, contextual artifacts, or organic material intentionally or inadvertently mixed with the inorganic ochre paint, including torch soot.

A red ochre painting, discovered at the centre of the , depicts two -like birds with their necks outstretched. They have been identified by a palaeontologist as depicting the species , giant birds thought to have become extinct more than 40,000 years ago; however, this evidence is inconclusive for dating. It may merely suggest that Genyornis became extinct at a later date than previously determined.

in the is also home to a number of cave paintings created by the seafaring .

Holocene cave art[]

The following sections present notable examples of prehistorc cave art dated to after the end of the (to the , after c. 11,500 years ago).


In the at the oldest artwork may be a relief of a shark above the cave entrance. It was partially disfigured by a later jar burial scene.[]

The of Kerala, India, contain drawings that range over periods from the Neolithic] as early as 5,000 BC to 1,000 BCE.

Horn of Africa[]

In 2002, a French archaeological team discovered the cave paintings on the outskirts of in the northwestern region of . Dating back around 5,000 years, the paintings depict both wild animals and decorated cows. They also feature herders, who are believed to be the creators of the rock art. In 2008, Somali archaeologists announced the discovery of other cave paintings in region, which the researchers suggest includes one of the earliest known depictions of a hunter on horseback. The rock art is in the Ethiopian-Arabian style, dated to 1000 to 3000 BCE.

Additionally, between the towns of and in is a site of numerous cave paintings of real and mythical animals. Each painting has an inscription below it, which collectively have been estimated to be around 2,500 years old. Karihegane's rock art is in the same distinctive Ethiopian-Arabian style as the Laas Geel and Dhambalin cave paintings. Around 25 miles from Las Khorey is found Gelweita, another key rock art site.

In , rock art of what appear to be antelopes and a giraffe are also found at and .

North Africa[]

Many cave paintings are found in the mountains in southeast . A , the rock art was first discovered in 1933 and has since yielded 15,000 engravings and drawings that keep a record of the various animal migrations, climatic shifts, and change in human inhabitation patterns in this part of the Sahara from 6000 BCE to the . Other cave paintings are also found at the , and in and other Sahara regions including: Ayr mountains, Niger and Tibesti, Chad.

The and the in southwest , near the border with Libya, in the mountainous region of the . The Cave of Swimmers was discovered in October 1933 by the explorer . The site contains images of people swimming, which are estimated to have been created 10,000 years ago during the time of the most recent Ice Age.

Southern Africa[]

At , , now thought to be some 3,000 years old, the paintings by the who settled in the area some 8,000 years ago depict animals and humans, and are thought to represent religious beliefs. Human figures are much more common in the rock art of Africa than in Europe.

North America[]

Main article:

Distinctive monochrome and polychrome cave paintings and murals exist in the mid-peninsula regions of southern and northern , consisting of paintings of humans, land animals, sea creatures, and abstract designs. These paintings are mostly confined to the sierras of this region, but can also be found in outlying mesas and rock shelters. According to recent studies of the area, of materials recovered from archaeological deposits in the rock shelters and on materials in the paintings themselves, suggest that the Great Murals may have a time range extending as far back as 7,500 years ago.

Further information:

Native artists in the tribes created that are located in present-day , , and in Southern . They include well executed examples at and .

There are also examples in caves of the . Cave art that is 6,000 years old was found in the region of .

South America[]

Cave painting at Serra da Capivara National Park,


Serra da Capivara National Park is a in the north east of Brazil with many prehistoric paintings; the park was created to protect the prehistoric artifacts and paintings found there. It became a in 1991. Its best known archaeological site is .

It is located in northeast state of , between latitudes 8° 26' 50" and 8° 54' 23" south and longitudes 42° 19' 47" and 42° 45' 51" west. It falls within the municipal areas of , , and . It has an area of 1291.4 square kilometres (319,000 acres). The area has the largest concentration of prehistoric small farms on the American continents. Scientific studies confirm that the Capivara mountain range was densely populated in prehistoric periods.

(Spanish for "Cave of the Hands") is a cave located in the of , , 163 km (101 mi) south of the town of , within the borders of the , which includes many sites of and importance.

The hand images are often negative (). Besides these there are also depictions of human beings, , , and other animals, as well as shapes, patterns, representations of the sun, and scenes. Similar paintings, though in smaller numbers, can be found in nearby caves. There are also red dots on the ceilings, probably made by submerging their hunting in ink, and then throwing them up. The colours of the paintings vary from red (made from ) to white, black or yellow. The negative hand impressions date to around 550 BCE, the positive impressions from 180 BCE, while the hunting drawings are calculated to more than 10,000 years old. Most of the hands are left hands, which suggests that painters held the spraying pipe with their right hand.[]

Southeast Asia[]

There are rock paintings in caves in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Burma. In , caves and scarps along the Thai-Burmese border, in the Petchabun Range of Central Thailand, and overlooking the Mekong River in Nakorn Sawan Province, all contain galleries of rock paintings. In the oldest paintings are at Gua Tambun in Perak, dated at 2000 years, and those in the Painted Cave at National Park are 1200 years old. The anthropologist visited Malaysia in the early 1920s and found that some of the tribes (especially Negritos) were still producing cave paintings and had added depictions of modern objects including what are believed to be cars. (See .)

See also[]


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  2. ^ M. Aubert et al., "Pleistocene cave art from Sulawesi, Indonesia", Nature volume 514, pages 223–227 (09 October 2014). "using uranium-series dating of coralloid speleothems directly associated with 12 human hand stencils and two figurative animal depictions from seven cave sites in the Maros karsts of Sulawesi, we show that rock art traditions on this Indonesian island are at least compatible in age with the oldest European art. The earliest dated image from Maros, with a minimum age of 39.9 kyr, is now the oldest known hand stencil in the world. In addition, a painting of a babirusa (‘pig-deer’) made at least 35.4 kyr ago is among the earliest dated figurative depictions worldwide, if not the earliest one. Among the implications, it can now be demonstrated that humans were producing rock art by ∼40 kyr ago at opposite ends of the Pleistocene Eurasian world."
  3. ^ Represented by three red non-figurative symbols found in the caves of Maltravieso, Ardales and , Spain, these predate the arrival of modern humans to Europe by at least 20,000 years and thus must have been made by . D. L. Hoffmann; C. D. Standish; M. García-Diez; P. B. Pettitt; J. A. Milton; J. Zilhão; J. J. Alcolea-González; P. Cantalejo-Duarte; H. Collado; R. de Balbín; M. Lorblanchet; J. Ramos-Muñoz; G.-Ch. Weniger; A. W. G. Pike (2018). "U-Th dating of carbonate crusts reveals Neandertal origin of Iberian cave art". Science. 359 (6378): 912–915. :.  "we present dating results for three sites in Spain that show that cave art emerged in Iberia substantially earlier than previously thought. Uranium-thorium (U-Th) dates on carbonate crusts overlying paintings provide minimum ages for a red linear motif in La Pasiega (Cantabria), a hand stencil in , and red-painted speleothems in Ardales (Andalucía). Collectively, these results show that cave art in Iberia is older than 64.8 thousand years (ka). This cave art is the earliest dated so far and predates, by at least 20 ka, the arrival of modern humans in Europe, which implies Neandertal authorship."
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  7. Hoffmann, D.L., Pike, A.W., García-Diez, M., Pettitt, P.B. and Zilhão, J., 2016. Methods for U-series dating of CaCO3 crusts associated with Palaeolithic cave art and application to Iberian sites. Quaternary Geochronology, 36, pp.104-119.
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Further reading[]

  • Dubowski, Mark (2010). Discovery in the Cave (Children's early reader). New York, USA: Random House.   
  • Fage, Luc-Henri; Chazine, Jean-Michel (2010). Borneo – Memory of the Caves. Le Kalimanthrope.  . 
  • Heyd, Thomas; Clegg, John, eds. (2005). Aesthetics and Rock Art. Ashgate Publishing.  . 
  • Curtis, Gregory (2006). The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World's First Artists. Knopf.  . 
  • (2005). "Immersive Excess in the Apse of Lascaux". Technonoetic Arts. 3 (3): 181–192. :. 

External links[]

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