Who Painted the Great Paleolithic Caves?

The Peripheral Evidence

41 000 BP – 12 000 BP

This page presents a selection of the archeological Paleolithic Cave Paintings in chronological order. They are intended to give an impression of the “State of Paleolithic Art” between 40 000 and 12 000 BP. Included are places of general interest, and caves which exhibit engravings rather than paintings and drawings.
The Caves of Chauvet, Lascaux, and Altamira have their own web pages. Likewise the finds of earlier, lower paleolithic sculptures are discussed in a separate “Venus Street” chapter. Another chapter presents the record of the Neanderthals especially of their burial sites, which in my opinion reflect customs and rites “Modern Man” (H.sapiens sapiens) adopted from the Neanderthals on his march from the Indian Subcontinent into Europe around 70 000-40 000 BP.

Google-Map of Cave Locations

El Castillo
Near Puente Viesgo and Altamira. Cantabria, Spain
The “oldest cave paintings” found so far in Western Europe
40 800 BP

The Panel of Hand dots and stencils at El Castillo, one “dot” 40 800 BP, another 37 300 BP (U/Th method on calcite)
Some seem to be women's hands, see Penn State U. pdf

This photo by Pedro Saura/AAAS shows the 'Panel of Hands' in El Castillo Cave: red disks (dots) and hand stencils made by blowing or spitting powdered ochre onto the wall. A date from the [calcified] coating of the disks shows the painting to be older than 40,800 years making it the oldest known “cave painting”. The bisons overlay the hands and were painted later. New tests show that crude Spanish cave paintings of a red dot and handprints are slightly older. They might have even been made by Neanderthals.

Note: Blown hand stencils can be found in many caves and at all ages right into historical times (e.g., American Indians, Australian aborigines, our own children!). They are in themselves no sign of old or primitive painting.

The paintings in this cave have many animal representations, among them drawings of dogs, uncommon in this area of Cantabria.

Remains of cave paintings covering the Achelense period down to the Bronze Age can be found in its 18-metre depth. The earliest paintings are hands in negative, of which some 45 examples have been found. There are also 50 signs and 180 representations of animals, especially goats. Among the drawings, those of horses, deer and bison are outstanding and there are also mammoths and dogs. The black paintings are from an intermediate period. The coloured ones are the most recent, as is the case with the red mammoth.

Quote; “Testing the coating of paintings in 11 Spanish caves, researchers found that one is at least 40,800 years old, which is at least 15,000 years older than previously thought. That makes them older than the Chauvet paintings by almost tenthousand years.
Scientists dated the Spanish cave paintings by measuring the decay of uranium atoms, instead of traditional carbon-dating, according to a report released by the journal Science. The oldest of the paintings is a red dot from El Castillo. About 25 outlined handprints in another cave are at least 37,300 years old. Slightly younger paintings include horses.

The authors of the study say they could have been from modern man decorating their new sanctuaries, or they could have been the works of the long-time former tenants of Europe: the Neanderthals. Scientists said Neanderthals were in Europe from about 250,000 years ago until about 25,000 years ago. Modern humans arrived in Europe about 41,000 to 45,000 years ago — some claim that they moved in even earlier — and replaced Neanderthals. ( Quote from Sciencemag, 15 June 2012)
"There is a strong chance that these results imply Neanderthal authorship," Zilhao said. "But we have not proven it "
In a telephone press conference, Zilhao said that Neanderthals decorated their tools and bodies. So, they could have painted caves.
Eric Delson, a paleoanthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and John Shea at Long Island's Stony Brook University said the dating work in the Science paper is compelling and important, but they didn't quite buy the theory that Neanderthals could have been the artists.
"There is no clear evidence of paintings associated with Neanderthal tools or fossils, so any such evidence would be surprising," Delson said. He said around 41,000 years ago Neanderthals were already moving south in Europe, away from modern man and their caves.”
Abbreviated quote from seattlepi.com

Santillana del Mar, Cantabria, Spain
35 600+16 000-12 000 BC

see my chapter on Altamira

Chauvet's Cave
near Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux, Ardeche, France
33 000-30 000 BP

See my chapter on Chauvet's Cave

Cueva de los Casares
near Riba de Saelices, Guadalajara, Spain
30 000-25 000 BP

Engraving of people in the Cueva de los Casares

A special cave is the Cueva de los Casares. There are references to the cave since at least the first half of the nineteenth century, but until 1933 there is no reference to the engravings. It contains a large number of confusing engravings dated to the Middle Paleolithic, about 200 drawings one on top the others, a few badly damaged. There are also animal engravings poorly represented elsewhere, such as that of a mutton – and of Man....
The cave has become famous for haboring a series of engravings, which are thought to be the first representation of human reproduction. Foremost among these acts and statements such as intercourse (one of three known representations in Paleolithic art), pregnancy, childbirth and family life.

The engravings – leave alone their subject matter – are difficult to see and more difficult to decipher (like the photograph above). Line tracings are about the only way to reproduce them. The Spanish Wikipedia shows the few tantalizing tracings given below.

There are similar drawings in Altamira (16 000 BP) [not reproduced in the internet], so one can doubt the dates given to the Casares engravings. Still the first apearance of human representations (drawings) in the prehistoric record seems to have taken place between 25 000 and 12 000 BP: Cussac (22 000), Gönnersdorf (16 000), Rouffinac (12 000). They all appear to have been produced by H.sapiens. - Accurate dating of rock engravings is difficult.

Tracings of the engravings, Prehistoria de Guadelajara

The drawings were discovered by brothers Rufus and Claudio Ramírez, with Rufus being the schoolteacher at Saelices Riba. Soon they saw that the scope of his discovery was of such importance it that should be studied by people specializing in this field, reporting on it to Francisco Layna Serrano, physician and historian of the province of Guadalajara, who spoke in his chronicles of "strange snakes chains that were on the ground.
Goolge-translation of Wikipedia.es

Cosquer's Cave
On the coast south of Marseille, only accessible from below the sea
27 000 and 19 000 BP
Photos from Jean Clottes et al

Black hand stencil with clay stained palm

Red hand stencil defaced with engraved lines

Red hand stencil with four bent fingers

Hand stencils form the earliest level 27 000 BP Jean Clottes et al

Cosquer's cave is located in the Calanque de Morgiou near Marseille, France, not very far from Cap Morgiou. This cave, the entrance of which is located underwater now, was discovered by Henri Cosquer in 1991. During the Paleolithic the cave's entrance was above sea level.
This cave contains several dozen paintings and carvings dating back to the Upper Paleolithic, matching two different phases of occupation of the cave:

The two main phases in the art of Cosquer, the earlier hand stencils and the finger tracings are from the Gravettian (27 000 BP), while most of the animal paintings and engravings appeared to belong to the later phase around 19 000 BP. This was confirmed by direct radiocarbon datings. 27 dates were obtained which for the most part cluster into two groups, one around 19,000 BP and the other around 27,000 BP. After the Chauvet Cave, Cosquer is the rock art site where most radiocarbon datings have been made (Clottes & Courtin 1994, 1996, Clottes et al. 1996, 1997).

Older drawings of hand stencils and other related motifs, dating back to 27,000 BP. Newer drawings of signs and animals dating back to 19,000 BP (Solutrean), representing both "classical" animals such as bisons, ibexes, and horses but also marine animals such as seals and what appear to be auks and jellyfish.

An ibex followed by a seal

A Horse, a chamois, and a doe

Engravings form the earlier level 27 000 BP, Jean Clottes et al

In the summers of 2002 and mostly of 2003, after Jean Clottes learnt how to scuba-dive for the express purpose of going to the cave, we did an in-depth study of it. First, we carried out a careful examination of the walls and roofs with the help of LED lamps, which are the best sources of light to discover fine engravings, to work out their superimpositions and, more generally, to study the traces of human activities on the surfaces.

The total of figures is now 177 animals. They belong to 11 different species, which is rather unusual in Upper Palaeolithic art, since if 14 species are represented in Chauvet, only 6 are known in Niaux and 9 in Lascaux. The 11 species in Cosquer are horses, bison, aurochs, ibex, chamois, saiga antelope, red deer (stags and does), megaloceros deer, feline, auks, seals. In addition, we have discovered 1 human with a seal's head, 44 black hand stencils and 21 red hand stencils, 216 geometric signs, 20 indeterminate figures, 7 others (like traces, holes in the walls, etc). We have now 78 more animal figures than those recorded in our preliminary book (Clottes & Courtin 1994, 1996).

The Panel of the Black Horses

A black stag on a low ceiling

Black drawings/paintings form the later level 19 000 BP, Jean Clottes et al

We can now state that the Cosquer Cave used to be one of the most important cave art sites in Europe, comparable to Lascaux, Trois-Frères, Altamira or Chauvet. This is because we are only left with a small part of the art. Exploring the submerged passages and chambers has shown that between three quarters to four fifths of the whole network is now under water where the walls and vaults are corroded by the sea and by the shells and algae so that no painting or engraving could be preserved.
Therefore there could originally have been anything between 400 and 800 animal figures in the cave. A number of small animal engravings - which had been seen in 1992 but had remained unstudied - are to be found on the slanting wall next to the big now submerged shaft, which we have called the Big Shaft. They are difficult of access because the water is quite deep at the foot of the wall.
The lower level of the water during our second spell of field work in 2003 has enabled us to spend more time there and to take close-ups of those engravings and of the black hand stencils nearby. Contrary to what we had thought first, we found out that they had been done before the hand stencils, because one of those hand stencils was on top of these engravings.
This means that part of the animals were done during what we called Phase 1 by the Gravettians, between 26,000 and 28,000 BP, which is an important new fact;

A hole marked to evoke the female sex, Jean Clottes et al

In addition to a phallus described previously (Clottes, Courtin, Collina-Girard 1996), other sexual symbols, both male and female, have been observed. In particular, a few natural hollows on the walls have been marked with black to transform them into an image of a female sex.
Bradshaw Foundation, Jean Clottes

See also Wikipedia

near Les Eysies, Dordogne, France
25 000 BP

What is so special about Font de Gaume is that the animals are carved, then painted . It's a great thing, because if the paint disappeared, most of the carving can still be seen. About 3 years ago, the owners renovated the ground of the cave for tourists. Before doing that, they studied the walls again, to be sure they did not miss any paintings. They discovered somewhere near 180 new objects, from animals to simple signs. Many of them were behind a layer of calcite, and can be seen only with a UV or IR light.
Text and photos from Don's Maps

A row of Bisons carved and painted, Photo hominides.com

Close-up of the second Bison from the left. Photo N. Aujoulat/Don's Maps

Deer and Bisons, Photo N. Aujoulat/Don's Maps

Grotte de Cougnac
north of Gourdon, Lot, France
25 000+14 000 BP

A cavalcade of deer, ibexes, and a megaloceros, 25-23 000 BP, Photo grottesdecougnac/Don's Maps

The Grottes de Cougnac consists of two caves separated by 200 metres. The first contains many concretions, some very fine, called soda straws. The second is a decorated cave from the Paleolithic. Les Grottes de Cougnac were discovered in 1952 by Lucien Gouloumès, et al. It has many prehistoric paintings dated to the upper Paleolithic. Depictions include deer, megaceros, ibex, and mammoths as well as schematic human figures, interpreted as wounded men, virtually identical to similar figures at Pech Merle (16 000 BP).

Direct dating has been carried out by the carbon 14 method on samples of carbon used for some drawings. They showed that the paintings corresponded to at least two clearly distinct phases: one around 25 000 BP (Gravettian) corresponding to the animal figures, the other about 14 000 years BP (Magdalenian) to the hand-dots, and human figures, which were obviously applied by a later visitor to the cave. There are 60 images of animals, 50 stencils of hands, and 3 schematic images of humans (14 000 BP).

Another photo of the megaloceros reveals a man with three spears in his back added later, 14 000 BP

Local red ochre was used to paint the figures. Cougnac was the site of the first direct radiocarbon date for Ice Age cave art. In the late 1980s, Michel Lorblanchet had a sample taken from a black charcoal dot located near the last mammoths (not shown) on the right hand end of the frieze. It yielded a date of about 14 000 BP; samples of paint from one male megaloceros later produced dates of 23 610 and 22 750 BP, while the female megaloceros yielded two very different dates 25 200 and 19 500 BP. This may indicate that the cave's art was originally produced 25-23 000 years ago, and was subsequently “touched up” a few millennia later, while the dots indicate that some Magdalenians entered the cave much later and, while respecting the original art, marked the walls with their hands. - They left no “aviforms” as in Pech-Merle (see Venus Street chapter).
Text modified and photos from Don's Maps

Lot, France
Decidedly an H.sapiens site
25-16 000 BP

Pech Merle, a hillside opening in the Lot département of Midi-Pyrénées region in France, about 35 minutes drive east of Cahors, is one site of prehistoric cave paintings in France remaining open to the general public. Going back inside for more than a mile are caverns with walls painted in dramatic murals dating back to 25,000 BP (Gravettian culture). Some of the paintings and engravings could be later (Magdalenian, 16, 000 BP).

Spotted horses surrounded by hand stencils and dots.
New (2011) genetic tests have shown that such dappeled horses actually existed in paleolithic times and have not sprung from the mythical imagination of the artist.

Another female hand stencil and dots. The dots were made with the flat hand dipped in red ochre.

Hand stencils appear in many paleolithic cave paintings, as in fact they occur in much later African, Australian, and North-American Indian rock paintings. They are not a sign of great age or of Neanderthal authorship.
On female hand stencils see: Penn State U pdf

n impressionist wooly mammoth drawn by an artist's hand which rivaled Picasso's

A man killed by spears and a “Placard Sign”, 75 cm high, Solutrean 20 000 BP? Photo Michel Lorblanchet

The most enigmatic findings in several caves in the area were a dozen of signs named: “aviforms” (in the shape of birds wings). It has been suggested that such signs, which are found in the Charente (Le Placard) and in the Departement Lot (Pech Merle, Cougnac), stand for a cultural group or a group with a common ancestor, who attended these caves separated by more than 150 km from each other.
A depiction of a speared man is equally rare (there exist 2 other much less explicit drawings). Possibly the associated Placard Sign indicates war fare between two tribes or groups: “kill the bastard!”

Ths raises the interesting question: was the man a Neanderthalian and the aviform-group H.sapiens? There exists an earlier example of a potential killing of a Neamderthal man by H. sapiens sapiens from Shanidar.
For more on Pech-Merle see Wikipedia Pech Merle
and Don's Maps

Grotte de Cussac
Dordogne, France (the exact location of the cave is kept secret!
22 000 BP

The prehistoric cave of Cussac was discovered by Marc Delluc in September 2000 in the Dordogne Valley. With hundreds of Paleolithic engravings dating to over 22,000 years ago, it can be considered the "Lascaux of engraving".

Engraving, a wooly mammoth and a woman or two and other fantasies

A rare, naturalistic engraving of a pregnant(?) woman

For once people were buried in this cave: human bones in a cave bear lair

The human remains from the Grotte de Cussac are currently the most complete skeletons and the oldest found in France in a Gravettian context. This is the first time in Europe that the contemporaneity of deposits, probably intentional, discovered in a cave decorated with parietal (wall) engravings may be considered and a relationship between rock art and funerary practices could be discussed.
Photos and text from Don's Maps

La Pasiega
Puente Viesgo, Cantabria, Spain
20 000-15 000 PB

A highly stylized multicolored bison

Cueva de La Pasiega, or Cave of La Pasiega, situated in the Spanish municipality of Puente Viesgo, is one of several monuments of Paleolithic art clustering around Altamira in Cantabria, which since July 2008 have been included in the UNESCO schedule of Human Heritage, under the citation "Cave of Altamira and palaeolithic cave art of Northern Spain."
The recorded remains belong mainly to the Upper Solutrean and the Lower Magdalenian ages, although older objects are also found. Throughout the cave are many 'walls' with paintings and with engraved or incised images. There are representations of equines (horses), cervids (deer, male and female) and bovines (cattle). There are also many abstract symbols (ideomorphs).
For a detailed discussion see Wikipedia
Other images: Pasiega and the Werner Collection

Perigord, France
17 300 BP

See my chapter on Lascaux

Grotte de Mas d'Azil
Le Mas-d'Azil, Ariège, France
16 000-15 000 BP

The cave of Mas-d'Azil is a large, 500 metre long tunnel dug by the Arize River through a wall of the Massif Plantaurelin, part of the Ariege Pyrenees. Secondary caves leading off the main tunnel were occupied at various prehistoric and historic times during a period of 20 000 years, and the objects found there gave the name of the cave to a prehistoric culture, the Azilian. It was excavated by Edouard Piette in the 19th century, who interpreted the halter-like marks on animal heads as being evidence of the domestication of reindeer and horses.

Head of a neighing horse, reindeer antler, 15 000 BP (photo enlarged)

A disk carved from a scapula (bovine?), fragmented, 78 mm x 37 mm.

These are a stunning pieces of work. The disk had originally an engraving on both sides. On one side of the disk is decorated with a human male with an erect penis confronting a bear, with a heavy stick over his shoulder, on the other, a man being struck down by a bear. He appears to be shown lying face down, there is no other palaeolithic representation of a man in such a position. If the disc is tipped upside down on this face, a horse can be seen.

A spear thrower carved in the form of a chamois fawn, 29.5 cm antler, 16 000 BP, Magdalenian

Spear throwers were invented by H. sapiens as they entered Europe in the 30th millenia BC. They encreased the power of a man's arm several times, and allowed the use of much lighter spears

Andernach-Neuwied, right bank of Rhine, Germany
16 000-14 000 BP

The site of Gönnersdorf is situated on the right bank of the Rhine, at the north-western exit of the Neuwied Basin, about 15 km northwest of the city of Koblenz and immediately east of the Andernacher Pforte (Andernach Gate)

The site was found on a spur of a triangular piece of land, which is 3 km long and 1 km wide. Directly west of the settlement, was a small stream running through a narrow, steep valley, draining into the Rhine. The valley both protected the people from the worst of the weather, and supplied them with the slate that was used for pavement in the settlement area. Towards the northwest, the site was protected by the slope of the high terrace, and was easily accessible only from the east.
The settlement is strategically placed, oriented towards south and is exposed to the full trajectory of the sun and has an excellent view over the Neuwied Basin. The settlement structures were buried by pumice after the last large eruption of the Laacher See Volcano , located 11 km west of Gönnersdorf, in the middle of the Allerød interglacial, about 10 900 BC.

“The Dance,” engraving, 20 000 BP
It looks like the two women are dancing the Tango!?

Four sylized women, bone, 15 000 BP

Three engraved women and two children, one woman with a baby facing backwards from a cradle on her back.
Photo Landesmuseum

The open-air site of Gönnersdorf was discovered and partly destroyed in 1968, during the construction of a cellar for a private house in Feldkirchen-Gönnersdorf. After digging through the pumice, bones and slabs of stones appeared and it became clear that what one was dealing with was a location of the Late Glacial. A few days after the discovery, Dr. Gerhard Bosinski from the University of Cologne was put in charge of further investigations of the site. Two excavation campaigns were conducted the same year, excavating the part called Concentration I (CI).
During these two campaigns what we today know from Gönnersdorf as the typical inventory was unearthed: the pulverised red hematite, a fireplace, features from habitation constructions, lithics, statuettes of ivory and antler, engraved slate plaquettes, jet beads, perforated animal teeth and a well preserved faunal record. Based on these finds it was early evident that Gönnersdorf was a site of inter-regional importance.
Text Don'sMaps

Les Combarelles
Les Eyzies-de-Tayac, Dordogne, France
14 000 BP

A long, narrow cave near Les Eyzies in Dordogne, France, famous for its prehistoric engravings.

The cave's hundreds of sometimes superimposed engravings, dating to the mid-Magdalenian Period of Paleolithic art (about 14,000 years ago), were discovered in 1901. Most of the images depict horses, bison, deer, and mammoths, but the cave also contains noteworthy images of bears, rhinoceroses

Part of the 12-m long redrawing of the long march of engraved animlas on the wall of the cave.

“In September 1902 we recognised on the walls of Les Combarelles 109 perfectly distinct figures, representing a series of engraved animals of various species, the entire animal or just the head alone.
We have represented all these animals on a strip which measures 12 metres long and 12 centimetres high, at about one tenth of the natural size, and we place these here for the eyes of the Academy, as well as 27 tracings of the principal figures.
These images engraved on the walls begin at 125 meters from the entrance.
The cave has the shape of a long winding corridor, with a height of 50 centimetres to two metres, and a width of 1 to 2 metres. They extend over a length of 100 meters on each side of the cave, almost to the end, which is 235 meters from the entrance.
Engraved sometimes deeply (4-5 mm) In the Cretaceous limestone, sometimes slightly more, sometimes enhanced with a stroke of black paint, these figures measure 25 centimetres to over a metre in length.
Many are coated with a calcite coating measuring a few millimetres thick which acts as a glaze on the drawings, while in other points the calcite hides them completely. The animals represented as entire are horses, bovidae, bisons, ibex, reindeer, and mammoths, not to mention unidentified animals, various heads, and many drawings unable to be interpreted.
The drawings are always executed in profile, and show the animal at rest or walking, sometimes running. Their technique is identical to that of engraved bone or ivory found in deposits from the Magdalenian period. They have a character of precision and skill, showing the constant concern to reproduce nature as it is, with no idea of stylisation. As for the engraved bones, it appears evident that the figures have been executed by the artists of the time as exact replicas of what they saw.” Quote: Capitan and Breuil (1902)
From Don's Maps who also reproduces the remainder of the scroll.

Grotte de Niaux
Niaux, Ariège, France
13 850-12 890 BP

Niaux Cave, or la Grotte de Niaux is one of the most popular prehistoric caves in France. It lies in the northern foothills of the Pyrenees, and is located in Ariège, in the valley of Vicdessos, across the valley from the smaller Grotte de la Vache, in an area rich with prehistoric sites. The huge cave entrance, 55 metres high and 50 metres wide, is at 678 metres above sea level. There are more than two kilometres of galleries, with a hundred or more superb paintings from Magdalenian times, most of which are in the 'Salon Noir', 800 metres from the entrance. Many of the paintings are done in the classic style of the Magdalenian, outlined in red or black pigment, mostly haematite or manganese dioxide respectively.

Horse with coat markings shown by hatched shading. Salon Noir, Niaux, Ariège. Length 30 cm

Two bisons one painted on top the other

A very rare outline drawing of a weasel

This bison from the Salon Noir has been given a radiocarbon date of 12 890 ±160 BP

Text and photos from Don's Maps

Les Trois Frères + Le Tuc D'Audoubert Caves
near Montesquieu-Avantès, Ariège, France
14 000 BP

Tracing of the large panel of engravings in Les Trois Freres. Width of panel 285 cm,.
Notice the Shaman sitting among the animals!

“The Sorcerer”, a drawing of another shaman in the “Sanctuary” of Trois-Freres. Tracing by Henri Breuil (1920)
The shaman is wearing a deer mask with mighty antlers and a tail over his scrotum.
Certain modern scholars question the validity of Breuil's sketch, claiming that modern photographs do no longer show the famous antlers.

The complex floor plan of the interconnected two caves

The cave was discovered in 1914, and most of the pictures of animals, together with a couple of therianthropes (half-human, half-animal figures), are located on the walls of a deep interior chamber known as the Sanctuary. This area is filled with some 280 often-overlapping engraved figures of bison, horses, stags, reindeer, ibex, and mammoths. The great majority probably date to the mid-Magdalenian Period (about 14,000 years ago).
Don's Maps

Rouffignac, Charente-Maritime, France
13 000 BP

“Le Grandpere” and ibexes

The cave of Rouffignac, La Grotte de Rouffignac, has been known for centuries and was described in 1575 by Francois de Belleforest. It is located in the heart of the Perigord, between Bergerac and Sarlat in the Dordogne region. The site has more than 250 etchings, line drawings and cave paintings dating from the Upper Paleolithic (Magdalenian, more than 13 000 years BP). With a length of over eight kilometres, this cave is one of the largest painted caves in Europe.

Visitors use an electric railway to gain access to the cave. Research has identified numerous traces of claws and lairs left by the cave bear before human intervention. These galleries were decorated with 158 mammoths associated with woolly rhinoceroses, bison, horses and ibex. The figures are deeply engraved or painted black. Tectiform signs and four human figures are also present
From Don's Maps