Prehistoric Cave Paintings

One might expect that the first examples of art would be simple and crude. However the oldest cave paintings are the evidence that modern humans were astonishingly quick in developing their artistic skills.

Ancient Cave Paintings

Cave paintings are paintings found on cave walls and ceilings, and especially refer to those of prehistoric origin. The earliest such art in Europe dates back to the Aurignacian period, approximately 40,000 years ago, and is found in the El Castillo cave in Cantabria, Spain. The exact purpose of the paleolithic cave paintings is not known. Evidence suggests that they were not merely decorations of living areas, since the caves in which they have been found do not have signs of ongoing habitation. They are also often located in areas of caves that are not easily accessible. Some theories hold that cave paintings may have been a way of communicating with others, while other theories ascribe a religious or ceremonial purpose to them.

Nearly 340 caves have now been discovered in France and Spain that contain art from prehistoric times. Initially, the age of the paintings had been a contentious issue, since methods like radiocarbon dating can produce misleading results if contaminated by samples of older or newer material, and caves and rocky overhangs (where parietal art is found) are typically littered with debris from many time periods. But subsequent technology has made it possible to date the paintings by sampling the pigment itself and the torch marks on the walls. The choice of subject matter can also indicate chronology. For instance, the reindeer depicted in the Spanish cave of Cueva de las Monedas places the drawings in the last Ice Age.

The oldest known cave art comes from the Cave of El Castillo in northern Spain, and may be more than 40,000 years old. This date coincides with the earliest known evidence for Homo sapiens in Europe. Because of their age, some scientists have conjectured that the paintings may have been made by Neanderthals.

The second-oldest known cave art is that of Chauvet Cave in France, the paintings of which date to earlier than 30,000 BCE (Upper Paleolithic) according to radiocarbon dating. Some researchers believe the drawings are too advanced for this era and question this age. However, more than 80 radiocarbon dates had been taken by 2011, with samples taken from torch marks and from the paintings themselves, as well as from animal bones and charcoal found on the cave floor. The radiocarbon dates from these samples show that there were two periods of creation in Chauvet: 35,000 years ago and 30,000 years ago. One of the surprises was that many of the paintings were modified repeatedly over thousands of years, possibly explaining the confusion about finer paintings that seemed to date earlier than cruder ones.

In 2009, spelunkers discovered drawings in Coliboaia Cave in Romania, stylistically comparable to those at Chauvet. An initial dating puts the age of an image in the same range as Chauvet: about 32,000 years old.

In Australia, cave paintings have been found on the Arnhem Land plateau showing megafauna which are thought to have been extinct for over 40,000 years, making this site another candidate for oldest known painting; however, the proposed age is dependent on the estimate of the extinction of the species seemingly depicted. Another Australian site, Nawarla Gabarnmang, has charcoal drawings that have been radiocarbon-dated to 28,000 years, making it the oldest site in Australia and among the oldest in the world for which reliable date evidence has been obtained.

Other examples may date as late as the Early Bronze Age, but the well-known Magdalenian style seen at Lascaux in France (c. 15,000 BCE) and Altamira in Spain died out about 10,000 BCE, coinciding with the advent of the Neolithic period. Some caves probably continued to be painted over a period of several thousands of years.

Theories and interpretations

Henri Breuil interpreted the paintings as being hunting magic, meant to increase the number of animals.

Another theory, developed by David Lewis-Williams and broadly based on ethnographic studies of contemporary hunter-gatherer societies, is that the paintings were made by paleolithic shamans. The shaman would retreat into the darkness of the caves, enter into a trance state and then paint images of their visions, perhaps with some notion of drawing power out of the cave walls themselves.

R. Dale Guthrie, who has studied both highly artistic and publicized paintings and a variety of lower quality art and figurines, identifies a wide range of skill and ages among the artists. He hypothesizes that the main themes in the paintings and other artifacts (powerful beasts, risky hunting scenes and the representation of women in the Venus figurines) are the fantasies of adolescent males, who constituted a large part of the human population at the time. However, in analysing hand prints and stencils in French and Spanish caves, Dean Snow ofPennsylvania State University has proposed that a proportion of them, including those around the spotted horses in Pech Merle, were of female hands.



The Cueva de El Castillo, or the Cave of the Castle, is an archaeological site within the complex of the Caves of Monte Castillo, and is located in Puente Viesgo, in the province of Cantabria, Spain. It contains the oldest known cave art in the world, which may be more than 40,000 years old.

This cave was discovered in 1903 by Hermilio Alcalde del Río, the Spanish archaeologist, who was one of the pioneers in the study of the earliest cave paintings of Cantabria. The entrance to the cave was smaller in the past, but it has been enlarged as a result of archeological excavations. By way of this entrance one can access the different rooms in which Alcalde del Río found an extensive sequence of images. The paintings and other markings span from the Lower Paleolithic to the Bronze Age, and even into the Middle Ages. There are over 150 figures already catalogued, including those that emphasize the engravings of a few deer, completed with shadowing.

ElCastilloCave2Paintings in El Castillo Cave in Puente Viesgo. Source >>

ElCastilloCave_SpainPanel de las Manos, El Castillo Cave, Spain.  Source>>

The caves of El Castillo contain more than 150 different images painted in charcoal and red ochre on the walls and ceilings of multiple chambers. Most are simple hand stencils, red disks, and claviforms (club shapes), although there are occasional outlines of animals.

The cave contains paintings of a great many animals, including drawings of dogs, which is not common in this area of Cantabria. Remains of cave art from the Acheulean period to the Bronze Age are found along its 18 metres depth. The most primitive paintings are the 45 hand prints. There are also 50 symbols and 180 depictions of animals, especially goats. There are also fine drawings of horses, deer and bison, as well as mammoths and dogs. The black paintings belong to a middle period. Coloured paintings, such as the red mammoth, are the most recent.


The Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in the Ardèche department of southern France is a cave that contains some of the earliest known cave paintings, as well as other evidence of Upper Paleolithic life. It is located near the commune of Vallon-Pont-d’Arc on a limestone cliff above the former bed of the Ardèche River, in the Gorges de l’Ardèche. Discovered on December 18, 1994, it is considered one of the most significant prehistoric art sites.

ChauvethorsesHorses, Chauvet Cave, France

Chauvet_BisonBison, Chauvet Cave, France

Lions_ChauvetLions, Chauvet Cave, France

Rhinos_ChauvetRhions, Chauvet Cave, France

Hundreds of animal paintings have been catalogued, depicting at least 13 different species, including some rarely or never found in other ice age paintings. Rather than depicting only the familiar herbivores that predominate in Paleolithic cave art, i.e. horses, cattle, mammoths, etc., the walls of the Chauvet Cave feature many predatory animals, e.g., cave lions, panthers, bears, and cave hyenas.

Typical of most cave art, there are no paintings of complete human figures, although there is one partial “Venus” figure composed of a vulva attached to an incomplete pair of legs. Above the Venus, and in contact with it, is a bison head, which has led some to describe the composite drawing as a Minotaur. There are a few panels of red ochre hand prints and hand stencils made by spitting pigment over hands pressed against the cave surface. Abstract markings—lines and dots—are found throughout the cave. There are also two unidentifiable images that have a vaguely butterfly or avian shape to them. This combination of subjects has led some students of prehistoric art and cultures to believe that there was a ritual, shamanic, or magical aspect to these paintings.

The artists who produced these unique paintings used techniques rarely found in other cave art. Many of the paintings appear to have been made only after the walls were scraped clear of debris and concretions, leaving a smoother and noticeably lighter area upon which the artists worked. Similarly, a three-dimensional quality and the suggestion of movement are achieved by incising or etching around the outlines of certain figures. The art is also exceptional for its time for including “scenes”, e.g., animals interacting with each other; a pair of woolly rhinoceroses, for example, are seen butting horns in an apparent contest for territory or mating rights.

The cave was first explored by a group of three speleologists: Eliette Brunel-Deschamps, Christian Hillaire, and Jean-Marie Chauvet for whom it was named. Chauvet (1996) has a detailed account of the discovery. In addition to the paintings and other human evidence, they also discovered fossilized remains, prints, and markings from a variety of animals, some of which are now extinct. Further study by French archaeologist Jean Clottes has revealed much about the site. The dates have been a matter of dispute but a study published in 2012 supports placing the art in the Aurignacian period, approximately 30,000–32,000 BP.


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Lascaux (Lascaux Caves) is the setting of a complex of caves in southwestern France famous for its Paleolithic cave paintings. The original caves are located near the village of Montignac, in the department of Dordogne. They contain some of the best-known Upper Paleolithic art. These paintings are estimated to be 17,300 years old. They primarily consist of images of large animals, most of which are known from fossil evidence to have lived in the area at the time. In 1979, Lascaux was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list along with other prehistoric sites in the Vézère valley.


The cave contains nearly 2,000 figures, which can be grouped into three main categories: animals, human figures and abstract signs. The paintings contain no images of the surrounding landscape or the vegetation of the time. Most of the major images have been painted onto the walls using mineral pigments, although some designs have also been incised into the stone. Many images are too faint to discern, and others have deteriorated entirely.

Lascaux_horseImage of a horse from the Lascaux caves

Lascaux_bullFragment of  image of a bull from the Lascaux caves

Lascaux_Animals2Animals, Lascaux caves

Lascaux_Animals1Animals, Lascaux caves

Over 900 can be identified as animals, and 605 of these have been precisely identified. Out of these images, there are 364 paintings of equines as well as 90 paintings of stags. Also represented are cattle and bison, each representing 4 to 5% of the images. A smattering of other images include seven felines, a bird, a bear, a rhinoceros, and a human. There are no images of reindeer, even though that was the principal source of food for the artists. Geometric images have also been found on the walls.

The most famous section of the cave is The Great Hall of the Bulls where bulls, equines, and stags are depicted. The four black bulls, or aurochs, are the dominant figures among the 36 animals represented here. One of the bulls is 17 feet (5.2 m) long, the largest animal discovered so far in cave art. Additionally, the bulls appear to be in motion.

Crossed_BisonThe Crossed Bison, Lascaux cave

A painting referred to as “The Crossed Bison”, found in the chamber called the Nave, is often submitted as an example of the skill of the Paleolithic cave painters. The crossed hind legs create the illusion that one bison is closer to us than the other. This visual depth in the scene demonstrates a primitive form of perspective which was particularly advanced for the time.

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Altamira (Spanish for ‘high views’) is a cave in Spain famous for its Upper Paleolithic cave paintings featuring drawings and polychrome rock paintings of wild mammals and human hands.


Altamira_BisonPainting of a bison in the cave of Altamira

Altamira_drawingsGreat hall of policromes of Altamira, published by M. Sanz de Sautuola in 1880.

Its special relevance comes from the fact that it was the first cave in which prehistoric cave paintings were discovered. When the discovery was first made public in 1880, it led to a bitter public controversy between experts which continued into the early 20th century, as many of them did not believe prehistoric man had the intellectual capacity to produce any kind of artistic expression. The acknowledgement of the authenticity of the paintings, which finally came in 1902, changed forever the perception of prehistoric human beings.

It is located near the town of Santillana del Mar in Cantabria, Spain, 30 km west of the city of Santander. The cave with its paintings has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

The cave is approximately 300 meters long and consists of a series of twisting passages and chambers. The main passage varies from two to six meters in height. The cave was formed through collapses following early karstic phenomena in the calcerous rock of Mount Vispieres.

Archaeological excavations in the cave floor found rich deposits of artifacts from the Upper Solutrean (c. 18,500 years ago) and Lower Magdalenean (between c. 16,500 and 14,000 years ago). Both periods belong to the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age. In the millennia between these two occupations, the cave was evidently inhabited only by wild animals. Human occupants of the site were well-positioned to take advantage of the rich wildlife that grazed in the valleys of the surrounding mountains as well as the marine life available in nearby coastal areas. Around 13,000 years ago a rockfall sealed the cave’s entrance, preserving its contents until its eventual discovery, which occurred after a nearby tree fell and disturbed the fallen rocks.

Human occupation was limited to the cave mouth, although paintings were created throughout the length of the cave. The artists used charcoal and ochre or haematite to create the images, often diluting these pigments to produce variations in intensity and creating an impression of chiaroscuro. They also exploited the natural contours in the cave walls to give their subjects a three-dimensional effect. The Polychrome Ceiling is the most impressive feature of the cave, depicting a herd of extinct steppe bison (Bison priscus) in different poses, two horses, a large doe, and possibly a wild boar.

Dated to the Magdelenean occupation, these paintings include abstract shapes in addition to animal subjects. Solutrean paintings include images of horses and goats, as well as handprints that were created when artists placed their hands on the cave wall and blew pigment over them to leave a negative image. Numerous other caves in northern Spain contain Paleolithic art, but none is as complex or well-populated as Altamira.



  1. Adrian Nostromo says

    The comment about the flood got me thinking, if the stories of the great flood(s) are true how could these painting have survived? Unless the great flood(s) only effected coastal communities, as per a rise in sea level.

  2. Jason says

    Sure is artistic for cave dwellers which means that genetic memory of the ancestors hope the language is suited for the display of characters

  3. ben garfield says

    completely fascinating….. The horses look like they are still alive… I have horses myself and they look like some of my own…. Just like today not everybody has this talent to draw in such detail…. 1 in a thousand maybe….

  4. Mark Tomlinson says

    I’ve always wondered why,since these artists were so richly talented and produced such realistic representations of animals, there are no similarly authentic pictures of humans? I may be wrong but in all the books and pictures I’ve ever seen humans are depicted as stick figures. Couldn’t they do it?
    Just a thought.

    • says

      They weren’t interested in depicting humans. They were fascinated by the dynamic nature of their environment, which was other than themselves. This dynamism was most easily perceived in the megafauna, which became representative of the motive source of existence which we have since come to call God. Caves were viewed as the womb of the Earth, of the Mother Goddess, and the source of these creatures, who romped in and out of the walls in the flickering torchlight. They painted mostly animals that they did not hunt, but that represented the fertile power of the Earth. More than likely these were their “cathedrals,” in which they enacted rituals of passage and other rites. Of course, this is all my conjecture, but it makes the most sense to me, after a lifetime of studying Joseph Campbell and other scholars.

  5. Charles Marcello says

    Hello again Starheater and Del,

    With all due respect it appears to me neither of you are actually studying those paintings… I won’t address them all, because it’s the first painting in the second part of this blog inside the Lascaux Caves that destroys each of your arguments. How so… well let’s look at the first picture. Those paintings appear to be twelve to fifteen feet from the floor, while there is another painting in the top right corner that is much higher. Now I won’t argue that a small minority of people are born into every generation that sees the world differently than the vast majority of their peers. With that being said, sure it is slightly possible a caveman was able to paint three dimensionally using skills that were not reinvented for 15 to 30 thousand years later. Yet that cave and those paintings demands one of two things… the half ass joke stated twice so far within this blog that the real painters were aliens, if not alien than that creature was most certainly what we would call a Giant!. OR… not only did this caveman understand how to paint three dimensionally he/she also understood how to build scaffolding or some kind of sophisticated latter. Which means the painter also understood the dynamics of using natural materials (possibly wood) to achieve a three dimensional physical created reality… ie bringing several pieces of wood together cut to different lengths… while at the same time understanding he/she would need some other material to hold in place those pieces of wood using some outside force like vines, rock sharpened nails, etc. And that’s just for the latter.

    Let alone, how many of you have been inside a cave that has not been pre-lighted? I’ve been in three caves, one created naturally, (the Oregon Caves near Cave Junction Oregon), and two man made caves created by mineral hunting miners at the end of the nineteenth century. One of those caves had many curves within it, some turning left others going to the right right, and no matter how hard you tried shadows existed everywhere. Hell just talking to people inside that cave was difficult if they were not standing right next to you because of the way shadows dance right behind the light. Which demands we are all being asked to believe… the person who created those paintings had an incredible amount of painting skills, could build some of kind of supporting device strong enough to hold his/her weight… and then this same person had to either build massive fires extremely close to where those paintings were being painted or used some other kind of advanced lighting system to cut down on all the shadows created by artificial light, (ie… fire or electricity.) If you want to test just how difficult a task that so called primitive cave person had to solved… go into the biggest room in your house and with no other lighting… put a flashlight anywhere behind you and then try to draw something that covers thirty percent of your wall. Just doing that simple exercise will show you how many times you have to move your flashlight just to create one simple painting just so you can stay within the margins of coherency. Or if you have a whole bunch of flashlights how many do you need to help defend against your own shadow casting darkness… let alone how many more flashlights do you need to prevent phantom line chasing? You see when you add it all together, the cave paintings inside that one cave proves either the academic world is either horrifically lost in their own stupidity, or they think you are not smart enough to see that the visual evidence destroys their horrifically ridiculous explanations. The evidence is overwhelming, no modern teaching of what equals a caveman could’ve created those paintings, period! Which means either carbon dating is horrifically flawed, or our truly ancient ancestors are a hell’va lot smarter and more advanced than what we’ve been tricked into believing.

    –Charles Marcello

    • Del says

      Important points, Charles. The people of the time probably did as you mentioned and built something for them to stand on, in order to paint cave ceilings. Probably a wooden platform held together with bindings like hand made ropes. You mentioned light sources. They could have used a big fire on the cave floor and hand held lamps on a platform, closer to the ceiling.

      I don’t think that modern humans of the past were more or less intelligent than people now. Their civilisation was just not as advanced as ours now.

      What is surprising to me is that certain people now, find the capabilities of ancient people surprising. That could be understandable if things like those cave paintings were done by other, human species such as neanderthals.

      • Charles Marcello says

        Hello again Del,

        If we agree all of those things are what was required for those “cavemen” to paint those pictures, then by modern definition those painters were not cavemen, they had to be something else entirely… and that’s my point! If science is going to continue to demand all those pictures found around the world were created somewhere between 15 to 30 thousand years ago, then as our own history demands… their could have been two to ten cycles of human mental evolution that achieved the same level of understanding that we enjoy today. Those paintings and what was/is required to make them possible throws a massive monkey wrench into the paradigm science is asking the world to accept as fact. Let alone the extremely dangerous idea you’ve suggested, that I’ve heard many times before… that those cavemen had the same type of mental capacity you and I enjoy today. If that is true then the natural curiosity of how things are had to of been just as strong in them as it is in us. You see for me, the more you question the how those pictures are possible the more you realize the answers we’ve been given by science is pure BS. BTW regarding neanderthals, according to science they had a bigger brain cavity than we do. Let alone I believe there is ample evidence that demands neanderthals are not extinct, instead they’ve been assimilated into homo sapiens sapiens. There are a few famous examples of how that must be true, while I’ve personally seen an entire family that looked exactly as we’ve been told neanderthals must’ve looked like. Yet to get back on point, if we agree several types of tools and structures were needed to create many of the paintings found in caves around the world, then the entire book on what equals cavemen must be rewritten. Or I guaran-damn-tee more people are going to start questioning our faith in science being the final answer to what does or does not equal reality and our past. So far the answers we’ve been given do not add up, which means one of two things, sciences accepted theories are horrifically flawed, or someone/group is purposely trying to trick the masses into seeing a history that never existed. And I’m positive one day soon the world is going to find out the real truth of our past.

        –Charles Marcello

    • Charles Marcello says

      How funny I just noticed I spelt ladder the same why I pronounce it, latter… Well for those of you who couldn’t follow what it was I was saying, replace the word latter with LADDER. Sorry for any confusion.

      –Charles Marcello

      • Del says

        Reaching cave ceilings and providing enough light to do those cave paintings could have been within the capabilities of stone age people. It is not necessarily beyond them.

        • Charles Marcello says

          Hello Del,

          If that was all that existed you’d be right, painting on ceilings and creating a fire in cave would not be outside the capabilities we are all forced to believe equaled cavemen intelligence. Yet if these so called cavemen were able to paint three dimensional creatures, some of them painted as if they are in motion… plus to be able to build ladders or scaffolding, let alone to accomplish all of this they must’ve been lead by a he/she smart enough to build enough fires and torches to be as precise as many of those paintings are… and to do so without dying because of lack of oxygen/smoke inhalation boggles the mind… yet all of those skills demands that they should’ve been able to do all the things science says our ancestors did not figure until five to twenty thousand years later. Because those same mental requirements to even paint many of those paintings are the same skills that are required for creating a society, to pen up animals for domestication and for farming. If science said those painting were only 10 thousand years old at the latest possible date, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, other than to ooh and ahh at some unknown primitive genius. Yet the truth is science has painted itself (pun intended) into a corner that those more sophisticated paintings, and what is required to make them happen even in our day, (manpower/hours/tools/intelligence), demands their forced history cannot be true. Let alone some of those paintings are so well done, and the mental skills required to do so makes many of our worlds most famous painters work seem like children finger paintings.

          –Charles Marcello

  6. Del says

    Rock images, including cave paintings, were done for a simple reason. The same reason that people in all the times since then until the invention of photography, also drew, painted and sculpted. People of the time did it to record what existed in their part of the world, then. It was the only way because cameras did not exist then.

    • Charles Marcello says

      Hello Del,

      Not to be rude but you seem to have missed the point. No one denies what you said is true, people/artist draw what they see The point of this article is to show the level of skill that existed thousands upon thousands of years ago, (read this article,{{{}}} to get some perspective on just how incredible that art truly is compared to when we claim someone finally made the mental connection allowing us to do the same style…) while at the same time showing the absolute absurdity of accepted academic claims regarding our “prehistoric ancestors” being nothing but primitive club waving cavemen. These painting are more proof, that exists all around the world, that an extremely advanced civilization lived at some point in our distant past. While the one million pound elephant in the room within many of these caves is… where the hell is all the soot from all the burning fires?

      –Charles Marcello

      • Starheater says

        Hello Charles

        We the human make deduction on the thing that we see, some experts have set the time to nearly 20,000 years. Those experts are related to other experts who are related to other… etc. If one mistake occur, they all are in falses presumptions.
        And for the datation of the Lascaux painting and others, the mistake is huge. They didn’t take account of the universal Deluge that the entire Earth had roughly 4,500 B.C. The problem is the instrument that they take to make their evaluation of the time they have been made.
        Tell me now Charles, could those painting could resist to a brutal washing of the flood? I think that you will easily agree those painting had no chance at all.
        Now for the question that no soot was discover in those cavern. Well, this too can be wrong again. Peoples around the globe have knew how to make alcool from wood, this one burn without smoke, that mean that they could have had alcool lamp, and the experts would be wrong.

        I have read the article of the site who you refer, the author suggest that man have, if I resume what he said, evolve 2 D to 3D, another error!!! Why? Because the genious could exist event in those time, it’s rare, but not enough. When I say rare, I dont claim 1 over 1 million, it is pretty much lower then that according to our time. I say that “could” be 1 on 10, or 20.

        Talent have always been part of mankind, there are not “evolution” of the “third kind” for talent.

        God Bless

      • Del says

        Charles, it’s not really surprising that people had that level of skill in producing those images. If they were done by the same species as us, modern humans, then it is to be expected. People have the same characteristics and potential, throughout history. Modern humans have the same bodies and the same brains, whatever time they live in.

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