Oldest Known Neanderthal Engravings Found in a French Cave

A set of engravings in a cave in France’s Loire Valley have turned out to be the oldest known cave markings made by Neanderthals. Hundreds of faint stripes, dots and lines decorate the cave walls. Researchers believe that they are over 57,000 years old.

The markings are known as “finger flutings.” A soft, thin clay film covers the limestone walls. You just have to run your fingers over it or press into the soft brown layer to make a mark. They are at a height that suggests that adults or teenagers made them.

The new study did a 3D model of the engravings, then compared them to other cave art. Researchers concluded they were intentionally made.

“These drawings…were not made quickly or without prior thought,” said archaeologist Jean-Claude Marquet.

The finger flutings. Photo: Jean-Claude Marquet/SWNS


Etchings pre-date modern humans

The cave was first discovered in 1846, but research only began in the 1970s. Little by little, researchers unearthed more sections of the cave. It stretches over 33 meters and splits into four chambers. The engravings occur in the third chamber.

Researchers dated the engravings by dating the sediments of the cave. The entrance of the cave was sealed and sediments from the outer wall were approximately 57,000 years old. This means the carvings within the cave must have been older than that. Some estimate that they could be up to 75,000 years old.

This dating is also what leads researchers to believe that they were made by Neanderthals. Homo sapiens has only been in Europe for 42,000 years, so predecessors of modern humans made the markings. There are eight distinct panels on the smoothest wall of the cave, all with engravings on them.

The meaning of the lines and dots is not clear and will likely never be deciphered. Said study co-author Eric Robert, “We do not have the keys to understanding their meaning, [or] their possibly diverse and multiple functions.”

By comparison, the most famed cave art in France is the Lascaux paintings. Depicting hundreds of animals and symbols, these are much more recent markings, from 15,000-17,000 years ago, and created by early humans. Archeologists think that Lascaux served for religious ceremonies.

A line drawing of the cave engravings Photo: Marquet et al/SWNS


A new appreciation of Neanderthals

Jean-Claude Marquet first started excavating the Neanderthal caves in the 1970s, but he did not focus on any wall markings. Instead, he found rudimentary stone tools and marked bones of bison and deer. All of this pointed to Neanderthals inhabiting the area tens of thousands of years ago. The art, however, was overlooked.

“Asking a specialist in prehistoric art to work with me would have been misunderstood because the idea that Neanderthals could have been artists was completely out of the question at the time,” said Marquet.

In recent years, our understanding of Neanderthals’ capabilities has changed drastically. We used to think that they were stereotypical cavemen, but their artistic tendencies go against this. There is a growing pool of evidence that Neanderthals were more skillful than they are given credit for. Earlier this year Science reported that Neanderthals regularly hunted elephants with stone tools. Another study showed that Neanderthals in Portugal hunted crabs in rock pools, then cooked them.

Rebecca McPhee

Rebecca McPhee is a freelance writer for ExplorersWeb.

Rebecca has been writing about open water sports, adventure travel, and marine science for three years. Prior to that, Rebecca worked as an Editorial Assistant at Taylor and Francis, and a Wildlife Officer for ORCA.

Based in the UK Rebecca is a science teacher and volunteers for a number of marine charities. She enjoys open water swimming, hiking, diving, and traveling.