Ancient human cave art is, plain and simple, really freaking cool. While it’s a record of their existence that researchers can accurately date back thousands of years, it also speaks to our early ancestors’ cognitive abilities and what we might even call culture.
We have a trove of Neanderthal-made artifacts, like a 51,000-year-old engraved bone and dyed shells. But arguably, the most classic medium for ancient human art is the cave wall. One of the most fascinating caves for this is La Roche-Cotard, which sits in France’s Loire Valley.
While this cave has been excavated for more than 110 years, it’s only now that we’re able to understand the finer points of the indelible wall markings. A study published today in the journal PLOS ONE demonstrates that what’s marked on the cave walls are unequivocally the oldest Neanderthal cave decorations in France.
Researchers from France, Denmark, and Portugal confirmed that cave wall engravings in La Roche-Cotard, which are estimated to be about 75,000 years old, were etched by Neanderthals. These marks are known as finger-flutings, meaning they were produced by human hands. These engravings make La Roche-Cotard the oldest decorated site in France and possibly Europe.
First author Jean-Claude Marquet, an archaeology research associate at the University of Tours in France, knows La Roche-Cotard intimately. He told Inverse by email that he executed three field campaigns there between 1976 and 1978.
“I saw the marks on the walls, but at that time, no prehistoricist could hypothesize that these marks had been made by prehistoric man,” he wrote.
“It was almost by accident that Jean-Claude Marquet later read the short notice about the site and decided to investigate,” co-author Guillaume Guérin, a geochronology researcher at the French National Center for Scientific Research, tells Inverse.
Marquet returned to the cave in 2008 when an international effort to date these engravings commenced. “I felt that the wall markings were a subject that absolutely had to be worked on with great care and precision,” he wrote. This finding, in a sense, is 40 years in the making for him.
Marquet dated another significant finding from this site, known as the “mask” of La Roche-Cotard, which is a piece of flint found at the cave’s mouth carved perhaps into the shape of a human face.
An artsy streak
While the engravings’ age alone is impressive, Marquet underscores how the creation of what appear to be artistic symbols speaks to Neanderthal sophistication.
“The Neanderthals who made these applied, organized, structured and, above all, perfectly intentional drawings, therefore, had a brain that enabled them to do work other than utilitarian tasks,” Marquet writes. “As well as hunting and cooking food, they were thinking and constructing a project that could be carried out with the help of traces on an object or, better still, on a wall.”
Additionally, the fact that the cave had been sealed until 1846 means that Homo sapiens, whom we know from archaeological evidence had not been in the region before the cave shut, never entered the cave before the cave’s discovery in 1846. This means these are unequivocally Neanderthal marks.
“We’ve long had the view that Neanderthals were not really evolved and that they probably vanished because they were less advanced than Homo sapiens,” Guérin says.
The team used a method known as optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) to find out how long ago the cave had been sealed and, therefore, how old the engravings are. A more typical archaeological form of dating, known as radiocarbon dating, is limited to only about 40,000 years, Guérin says.
“Luminescence dating is a method that allows dating the last exposure of sediment to sunlight,” Guérin explains. Sediments all contain some amount of natural radioactivity. Once they’ve been shielded from sunlight, OSL signals begin to build up in the form of natural radioactivity from uranium and potassium isotopes in heavy minerals. The team took samples above, near, and inside the cave and exposed them to ionizing radiation. The radiation causes electrons in the sediment crystals to migrate and become trapped within a crystalline structure. The number of trapped electrons can determine the total amount of radiation (i.e., sunlight) the rocks had seen.
While they found the cave was sealed about 57,000 years ago, their dating techniques show that the markings could be as old as 75,000 years.
The team also created 3D models of these markings and compared them with other known engravings. These models helped them determine that they were, indeed, intentional scores created by human hands.
Neanderthal artist hints
One question this finding raises is whether there’s any DNA at the scene of the crime. “There is the possibility that some DNA would have been left by the artists,” Guérin says. The potential analysis could help us learn a little bit more about the Neanderthal artists who left these marks.
As for Marquet, after over 40 years, he’s finally handled these engravings with the care and precision he wanted.