Among oldest Neanderthal cave engravings found in France

The oldest cave markings that can definitely be chalked up to Neanderthal handiwork have been found in France. The engravings are more than 57,000 years old.

La Roche-Cotard is a cave in central France where a series of non-figurative (symbolic, not representing natural objects) have been found. The markings are believed to be finger flutings – lines left by human fingers on a soft surface that hardens over time.

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The cave was completely sealed by Ice-Age sediments until it was discovered in the 19th century. It was excavated for the first time in the early 20th century.

Animated 3D Model of the main decorated wall of the Roche-Cotard cave. Credit: Marquet et al., PLOS ONE, 2023, CC-BY 4.0.

An international team of researchers studying the recently discovered markings used photogrammetry to create three-dimensional models of the engravings. Based on their shape, spacing and arrangement, the team concluded that they are deliberate and organised shapes created by ancient human hands. Their results are published in the journal PLOS ONE.

To date the cave sediment, the team used optically-stimulated luminescence – a technique that involves exposing mineral grains to specific wavelengths of light to determine the time since that grain was last exposed to sunlight.

Two people in a cave facing some ancient engravings
Trine Freiesleben and Jean-Claude discussing the fingerprints and where to take OSL samples. Credit: Kristina Thomsen, CC-BY 4.0.

The results of the procedure showed that the cave engravings are at least 57,000 years old but could be as much as 75,000 years old.

This places them within the ballpark of other examples of the oldest cave paintings, such as the more than 64,000-year-old red hand stencil in Maltravieso cave in Spain.

Recent research suggests Australia’s oldest Indigenous cave paintings are about 17,000 years old.

The La Roche-Cotard cave art predates the arrival of modern humans in this region of Europe by at least 15,000 years. Even considering recent studies which suggests Homo sapiens migrated to western Europe as early as 54,000 years ago, modern human occupation doesn’t overlap with the age of these markings.

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In addition, stone tools within the cave are Mousterian – a technology associated with Neanderthals. So, there is strong evidence to suggest that the cave engravings were created by Homo neanderthalensis.

Over recent decades, research has revealed the cultural complexity of Neanderthals but very little is known about their symbolic and artistic expression. These ancient cave paintings give further insight into the growing body of evidence that suggests that Neanderthal behaviour and activities were similar in complexity and diversity to those of early modern humans.

“Although the finger tracings at La Roche-Cotard are clearly intentional, it is not possible for us to establish if they represent symbolic thinking,” the authors write. “Nevertheless, our understanding of the relationship between Neanderthals and the symbolic and even aesthetic realms has undergone a significant transformation over the past two decades and the traces preserved in the cave of La Roche-Cotard make a new and very important contribution to our knowledge of Neanderthal behaviour.”

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