A Brief History
Cave paintings and rock engravings represent the earliest human art forms, and examples can be found around the world going back over 50,000 years. The earliest known abstract art was discovered in the Blombos Cave, an archaeological site located 300km east of Cape Town in South Africa. Stones engraved with a grid or cross-hatch patterns discovered were dated to about 70,000 years BC (and attributed to homo sapiens).
The oldest known cave paintings are red hand stencils in the Maltravieso cave in Spain. Discovered in 1951, the cave has traces of human occupation from the Middle Paleolithic times and the cave art includes notably 71 hand stencils. Dated to at least 64,000 years old, these hand stencils were made by Neanderthal man.
The world’s oldest-known figurative artwork discovered to date are three wild pigs painted in a limestone cave (Leang Tedongnge) on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, which have been dated to at least 45,000 years BC. The painting appears to depict a group of Sulawesi warty pigs, two of which appear to be fighting; two images are badly damaged, but the third, possibly watching the drama unfold, remains in near-pristine condition (Source: Artnet).
Prior to this discovery in 2021, a nearby cave (Leang Bulu’Sipong) discovered by the same team a few years earlier has artwork dated as being approximately 43,900 years old. A 4.5m wide panel depicts six fleeing mammals (two Sulawesi warty pigs and four dwarf buffaloes, or as anoas) who are pursued by human-like figures wielding long swords or ropes.
These Indonesian cave paintings pre-dated cave art in France and Spain, which had until recently been considered the earliest examples of human artwork. Nearly 350 caves have now been discovered in France and Spain that contain art from prehistoric times. The earliest known European figurative cave paintings are those in the Chauvet Cave in France, dated to earlier than 30,000 BCE (Upper Paleolithic period).
Aboriginal rock art is the oldest form of indigenous Australian art, with the earliest examples discovered at Gabarnmung in Arnhem Land dating back around 28,000 years. Located on the lands of the Jawoyn Aboriginal people in south-west Arnhem Land, Gabarnmung was “discovered” by non-Jawoyn people in 2006 and is one of the largest rock art sites in the world. (Other cave paintings on the Arnhem Land plateau depict megafauna which are thought to have been extinct for over 40,000 years, which would make this one of the oldest known paintings in the world – but the proposed age is dependent on the estimate of the extinction date, which is only considered an estimate.)
Indigenous sites around the world
Many countries have publicly-accessible indigenous rock art and petroglyph sites…
It is thought that there are over 100,000 rock art sites in Australia, dating from 28,000 years ago (Gabarnmung, above) to sites that depict post-European colonisation scenes. There are quite significant differences in styles between Aboriginal language groups, and depending on the region the art can consist predominantly of cave paintings (pictographs) or engravings on open sandstone platforms (petroglyphs), or a combination of both.
View accessible rock art sites in Australia.
Cave art sites can be visited in a number of locations in France, including Normandy and Burgundy, in the Dordogne (one of the most popular areas) and in the foothills of the Pyrenees. A replica of the famous Lascaux cave (Lascaux 2) was opened to the public in 1983.
More rock art made by hunter-gatherers is found in Alta than anywhere else in northern Europe, suggesting that for thousands of years Alta was an important meeting place far north of the Arctic Circle. Over 6,000 rock carvings have been documented across 45 sites around the Alta Fjord, going back to 4000-5000 BC.
|USA / NORTH AMERICA
There are thousands of rock art sites across the US, with the the most prominent region being the American Southwest. Ancient symbols on boulders on a dried lake in Nevada (Winnemucca Petroglyphs) are the oldest confirmed rock carvings in North America, having been dated to at least 10,500 years old, and perhaps as much as 14,800 years old. View rock art sites in North America.
Rock Art Resources
- Archaeology Travel – Interactive Map of Rock Art sites around the world
- Bradshaw Foundation – an extensive archive of rock art around the world
- gjhikes.com – a blog with hundred of US rock art sites
- Archaeology Travel – Prehistoric Cave Art in France
- Spain Info – Prehistoric Rock Art Trails: the first art of mankind
- Dons Maps – Resources for the study of Palaeolithic / Paleolithic European, Russian and Australian Archaeology / Archeology