Cave Paintings - A Few Samples of the World's Earliest Art

Paleolithic (and Later) Parietal Art Locations

Although the best-known cave painting sites are from the Upper Paleolithic of France and Spain, paintings, art in caves and rock shelters have been recorded throughout the world. What is it about a rock wall in a dark and mysterious cave that inspired the ancient artists? Here are a few of our personal favorites from Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and the Near East.

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Panel of Hands at Castillo Cave
The Panel of Hands, El Castillo Cave, Spain. A hand stencil has been dated to earlier than 37,300 yearsago and a red disk to earlier than 40,600 years ago, making them the oldest cave paintings in Europe. Image courtesy of Pedro Saura

The caves that lie within the mountain in the Cantabrian region of Spain called El Castillo are known to contain more than 100 different images painted in charcoal and red ochre. Most of the images are simple hand stencils, red disks, and claviforms (club shapes). At least some of them are 40,000 years old and may have been the work of our Neanderthal cousins.

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Leang Timpuseng (Indonesia)

Tracing of Rock Art from Leang Timpuseng of Hand Stencil and Animal in Profile
Tracing of the rock art at Leang Timpuseng showing the locations of the dated coralloid speleothems and associated paintings. Courtesy Nture and Maxime Aubert. Tracing by Leslie Refine ‘Graph & Co’ (France).

Newly dated rock art from Sulawesi in Indonesia includes negative hand prints and a few animal drawings. This image is a tracing from Leang Timpesung, one of several very old rock art sites on Sulawesi. The hand print and babirusa drawing were dated using uranium-series techniques on calcium carbonate deposits to more than 35,000 years old. 

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Abri Castanet (France)

Block 6 at Abri Castanet
Castanet, block 6, photograph and drawing of an unidentifiable zoomorphic figure painted in red and black. ©Raphaëlle Bourrillon

Dated between about 35,000 and 37,000 years ago, Abri Castanet is one of the oldest of the cave art sites, located in the Vézère Valley of France, where a collection of animal outlines, pecked stone circles and sexual images were painted on the ceiling, where the residents of the cave could see and enjoy them.

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Chauvet Cave Lions
Photograph of a group of lions, painted on the walls of Chauvet Cave in France, at least 27,000 years ago. HTO

Chauvet Cave is located in the Pont-d'Arc Valley of Ardèche, France, the cave extends nearly 500 meters into the earth, with two main rooms separated by a narrow hallway. The cave's art, dated between 30,000-32,000 years old is complex and thematically exciting, with groups of lions and horses in action poses: too complex to fit into theories of how cave paintings evolved over time.

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Painted Ceilings and Pillars of Nawarla Gabarnmang
Painted Ceilings and Pillars of Nawarla Gabarnmang. © Jean-Jacques Delannoy and the Jawoyn Association; published in Antiquity, 2013

The vivid paintings on the ceiling and pillars of the rock shelter called Nawarla Gabarnmang in Arnhem Land were begun at least 28,000 years ago: and the shelter itself a work of thousands of years of reshaping and redecorating.

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Lascaux II - Image from the Reconstruction of Lascaux Cave
Lascaux II - Image from the Reconstruction of Lascaux Cave. Jack Versloot

Lascaux is probably the best-known cave painting in the world. Discovered in 1940 by some adventurous boys, Lascaux is a veritable hall of art, dated stylistically to Magdalenian period of 15,000-17,000 years ago with depictions of aurochs and mammals and deer and bison and birds. Closed to the public in order to save its delicate artwork, the site has been reproduced on the web.

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Altamira Cave Painting - Reproduction at the Deutsches Museum in Munich
Altamira Cave Painting - Reproduction at the Deutsches Museum in Munich. MatthiasKabel

Billed as the "Sistine Chapel" of the rock art world, Altamira includes paintings dated stylistically to the Solutrean and Magdelanian periods (22,000-11,000 years ago). The cave walls are decorated with multi-colored paintings of animals, stenciled hands, and sculpted humanoid masks.

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Koonalda Cave lies on the western edge of South Australia, about 50 kilometers (35 miles) from the ocean; the interior cave walls are covered with finger markings dated to more than 20,000 years old.

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Kapova Cave Reproduction, Brno Museum
Kapova Cave Reproduction, Brno Museum. HTO

Kapova Cave is a rock shelter in the southern Ural Mountains of Russia, where a mile-long gallery of cave paintings includes over 50 figures, including mammoths, rhinoceros, bison and horses, combined human and animal drawings and trapezoids. It is indirectly dated to the Magdalenian period (13,900 to 14,680 RCYBP).

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Uan Muhuggiag is a cave located in the Acacus massif of the central Saharan desert of Libya, contains three phases levels of human occupation and rock art, dated between 3,000 and 7,000 years ago.

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The walls of Lene Hara cave in East Timor, Indonesia, contain rock art paintings are mostly attributed to the post-pottery Neolithic occupation (ca 2000 years ago). The images include boats, animals and birds; some combined human and animal forms; and, most frequently, geometric shapes such as sunbursts and star shapes.

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Gottschall Rockshelter (United States)

Gottschall is a rock shelter in the state of Wisconsin in the United States, with cave paintings dated to ca 1000 years ago, that appear to describe legends of the Ho-Chunk Native American group who still live in Wisconsin today.