Prehistoric cave paintings have been discovered on every continent except Antarctica.
The majority of known sites feature depictions of animals, so it’s been theorised that hunter-gatherers painted their prey as a ritualistic way of summoning species to hunt. Alternatively, early humans may have adorned cave walls with art to host shamanic ceremonies.
While questions still abound over the origins and intentions of these prehistoric paintings, they undoubtedly offer an intimate window on our ancestors, the development of diverse cultures across the globe and on the origins of artistic endeavour.
Here are 5 of the most significant cave painting sites ever discovered around the world.
Caves of Lascaux, France
In 1940 a group of schoolboys in the Dordogne region of France slid through a fox hole and discovered the now much-lauded Lascaux Caves, a cave complex adorned with impeccably preserved prehistoric art. Its artists were likely Homo sapiens of the Upper Paleolithic period who lived between 15,000 BC and 17,000 BC.
The celebrated site, which has been described as a “prehistoric Sistine Chapel”, features nearly 600 paintings and carvings. Among the images are depictions of horses, deer, ibex and bison, which were produced under the light of prehistoric animal fat burning lamps.
The site was opened to the public in 1948 and then closed in 1963, because the presence of humans was causing damaging fungus to grow on the cave’s walls. Lascaux’s prehistoric caves became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
Cueva de las Manos, Argentina
Found on a remote stretch of the Pinturas River in Patagonia, Argentina, is a prehistoric cave painting site known as the Cueva de las Manos. The “Cave of the Hands”, as its title translates to, features around 800 hand stencils on its walls and rock faces. They are thought to be between 13,000 and 9,500 years old.
The hand stencils were created using bone pipes filled with natural pigments. Mostly left hands are depicted, suggesting the artists raised their left hands to the wall and held the spraying pipe to their lips with their right hands. And it was these pipes, fragments of which were uncovered in the cave, which allowed researchers to roughly date the paintings.
The Cueva de las Manos is significant because it’s one of few well-preserved South American sites relating to the region’s Early Holocene inhabitants. Its artworks have survived for thousands of years because the cave retains a low humidity, having not been breached with water.
El Castillo, Spain
In 2012 archaeologists concluded that a painting in southern Spain’s El Castillo cave was more than 40,000 years old. At the time, that made El Castillo the site of the oldest known cave painting on Earth. Although it has since lost that title, the artistry and preservation of El Castillo’s red ochre artworks have earned it attention from scholars and artists alike.
Archaeologist Marcos Garcia Diez, who has studied the site, said, “This cave is like a church and that’s why ancient people returned, returned, returned here for thousands of years.” And when Pablo Picasso visited El Castillo, he remarked of human endeavours in art, “We have learned nothing in 12,000 years.”
Spain’s Cantabria region is rich with prehistoric cave paintings. Some 40,000 years ago, early Homo sapiens travelled from Africa to Europe, where they mingled with Neanderthals in southern Spain. As such, some researchers have suggested that paintings in El Castillo could have been produced by Neanderthals – a theory that has received criticism from scholars who trace the origins of artistic creativity to early Homo sapiens.
Serra da Capivara, Brazil
According to UNESCO, the Serra de Capivara National Park in northeast Brazil contains the largest and oldest collection of cave paintings anywhere in the Americas.
The sprawling site’s red ochre artworks are believed to be at least 9,000 years old. They depict scenes of hunters pursuing prey and tribespeople waging battles.
In 2014 archaeologists found stone tools in one of the park’s caves, which they dated back 22,000 years. This conclusion defies the one widely accepted theory that modern humans arrived in America from Asia around 13,000 years ago. The question of when America’s earliest human inhabitants arrived remains contentious, though human artefacts such as spearheads have been unearthed in various sites across America dating back further than 13,000 years.
Leang Tedongnge cave, Indonesia
On the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, in an isolated valley surrounded by steep cliffs, sits the Leang Tedongnge cave. It’s accessible only on certain months of the year, when flooding doesn’t block access, but it has housed human inhabitants for at least 45,000 years.
The cave’s prehistoric dwellers adorned its walls with art, including a red painting of a pig. This depiction, when dated in January 2021 by specialist Maxime Aubert, took the title of being the world’s oldest known cave painting of an animal. Aubert found the pig painting to be roughly 45,500 years old.
Homo sapiens reached Australia 65,000 years ago, possibly after passing through Indonesia. So, archaeologists are open to the possibility that older artworks may yet be discovered on the country’s islands.