Before formal systems of writing existed, prehistoric people told stories through cave paintings. The thought that these cave paintings survived thousands of years—through wars, technological advancement, and natural disasters—is awe-inspiring.
All around the world, cave paintings offer a glimpse at what prehistoric life was like—from ancient flora and fauna to spiritual ceremonies and the primary importance of the hunt. We rounded up some of the most beautiful and revelatory cave paintings in the world.
Lascaux Cave Paintings
France, c. 18,000-15,000 B.C.E.
A group of teenagers discovered the entrance to one of these caves, located in Southwest France, in 1940. After the teens shared their discovery, the cluster of cave paintings became a busy tourist spot. Exposure to the elements—and constant foot traffic—led to an alarming deterioration of the cave paintings, resulting in the closure of the site tot he public in 1963. Although you can no longer enter the main caves, precise replicas have been made so that all visitors can see the artistry. The paintings feature over 6,000 figures, the majority of which are abstractions, animals, or humans.
Often called the Prehistoric Sistine Chapel, the Lascaux Cave Paintings allow visitors a glimpse of what Upper Paleolithic life was like. Lascaux hosts some of the oldest known cave paintings still in existence today. Anthropologists and art experts believe that the paintings reflect hunting victories or religious rituals for future hunting successes. The complexity of some of the painting styles shows that the artists had an understanding of art techniques that were previously attributed only to later times.
Grotta dei Cervi
Italy, c. 6,000-5,000 B.C.E.
Grotta dei Cervi translates to “The Deer Cave”, which is appropriate considering the many paintings of deer. The cave complex was discovered in 1970, and the cave paintings date back to the Paleolithic and Neolithic eras.
There are over 3,000 separate figures throughout the cave. Bat droppings and red clay were used as paint on the white limestone walls. Though art experts and historians agree that the painting techniques in the caves were advanced, there is no definitive conclusion as to what the paintings represent, aside from the deer, which are believed to show a creation story. The white walls and the dark paint used are far different from other known cave painting collections, which usually feature brown walls and reddish/brown paint.
Bulgaria, c. 8,000-6,000 B.C.E.
The Magura Cave is often compared to the Grotta de Cervi thanks to their similar subject matter. The 15 million year-old cave boasts a range of paintings from 8,000 years ago (Epipaleolithic Age) to 1,200 years ago (Early Bronze Age). One of the more famous images from the walls is the The Fertility Dance (shown above), which is believed to depict a religious ceremony. The painting shows animals, men, and women engaging in a ritualistic dance to help with fertility.
The cave paintings also include the earliest known European solar calendar, which features five festivals and 366 days. Many of the paintings were created with bat guano. Today, music concerts are held in the cave site during major holidays.
Cueva de las Manos
Argentina, c. 11,000-7,000 B.C.E.
The cave includes many paintings of hunting scenes and animals, but the most famous creation is a collection of hundreds of hands–most of them left hands. The 5,000 year-old hand paintings were created through a stenciling technique which utilized pipes made out of bone. The paint was created with a combination of charcoal, manganese, hematite, and kaolin.
The people who lived in the cave’s region during the time were generally hunter-gatherers, which explains the many scenes of humans pursuing animal prey–primarily llamas. The cave is still open to the public, although the official site warns of how complex the journey is.
Somalia, 9,000-3,000 B.C.E.
The cave contains some of the oldest paintings in the Horn of Africa, located in modern Somalia. The cave paintings were discovered in 2002 by a team of French researchers. Although the caves were well-known by locals, this team brought international recognition to Laas Geel. Many of the scenes include cows, bulls, herders, and even the presumed artists. Some of the cows in the paintings are wearing decorative robes, which shows the culture of the time. Known for vivid colors, the cave paintings at Laas Geel have been extensively studied and visited since their discovery.
Somalia has a number of lesser known archaeological sites like Laas Geel. If you’re looking for an unusual historic adventure, you can’t go wrong with visiting Somalia.
Spain, c. 20,000-13,000 B.C.E.
Hand and fauna paintings are two of the main features of the Paleolithic Era Altamira Cave, which is in Northern Spain. The artists used chiaroscuro (a combination of light and shading) when creating many of the paintings, and they also used an early form of three-dimensional artistry through painting differently on the contours of the cave’s walls. The most famous part of the cave is the Polychrome Ceiling, which features a now-distinct herd of bison and other animals.
Archaeologists discovered animal bones, weapons, and ash inside the cave, showing that people lived in it for thousands of years. The cave’s entrance was blocked by rocks for thousands of years until a tree fell. One of the earliest prehistoric cave painting sites discovered, the Altamira Cave was regarded with suspicion for many years after its first discovery in 1879. By 1902, though, researchers confirmed the legitimacy of the cave paintings.
France, 30,000 B.C.E.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Grotte Chauvet is the number of animal species featured in its paintings that are seen in no other cave paintings of the era. While many or even most prehistoric cave paintings depict herbivores, the paintings at Grotte Chauvet show predatory animals like lions, bears, and panthers. Some historians believe that some of the images are meant to show magic, because they are combinations of multiple beings.
The earliest known painting of an active volcano is in Grotte Chauvet, although it has been covered by another painting of a deer. The paintings employed techniques that are unique for the time. One such technique was smoothing out the cave walls of any imperfections before painting them. Some of the artists also etched outlines of figures before painting in them, creating a three-dimensional look.
Bhimbetka Rock Shelters
India, c. 28,000 B.C.E.
These cave paintings in Bhimbetka were largely created with a paint extracted from vegetables. Their creation ranges from the Paleolithic Age to the Early Bronze Age, so there is great depth to the various styles and images represented. The Paleolithic Era works show scenes in a linear way, making people and animals look like stick figures. The more advanced paintings show herds of animals but also feature aspects of religious worship, like yakshas, which are nature-spirits.
The use of vegetables instead of minerals to create the paints makes the colors of Bhimbetka Rock Shelter more vibrant than other caves. The vegetable extractions were only preserved for this long because they were in such an isolated part of the cave–sunlight and other natural elements like rain could not cause deterioration. One of the most notable sections of the Rock Shelters is the Zoo Rock, which features a wide range of animal paintings, from elephants to snakes.
Kakadu Rock Paintings
Australia, c. 18,000 B.C.E.
Kakadu has been the home of Aboriginal peoples (the Bininj and Mungguy groups) for over 65,000 years. Many newer paintings cover older ones, as the culture emphasized the act of painting over the paintings themselves. In Aboriginal culture, only a person with knowledge of magic and sorcery could paint such scenes.
The paint used in these caves was made from a mixture of water and crushed pigments. Paint brushes were created with human hair and reeds. The reason why most of the paintings that still exist are primarily red is because that pigment was the strongest and longest lasting.
The above painting, Nourlangie, also called Burrunggui, shows environmental and social issues that the Aboriginal people faced and their creation story.
Cosquer Cave Paintings
France, c. 25,000 B.C.E.
Because of our rising sea levels, the Cosquer cave paintings are nearly completely underwater.The entrance to the cave is fully submerged. When the artists first painted the pieces, the cave was over 250 feet above sea level. Though only about 150 pieces remain intact today, the artists mixed land animals (like bison, and horses) with mythical watery creations (like a seal’s head on a man’s body), showing a unique style that few other prehistoric caves included.
Featured photo of Cave of Altamira: Wikimedia Commons; Additional photo: Prehistoric Rock Art Trails