The Oldest Cave Paintings in the World

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Beware: You should never explore wild caves alone or without proper gear. Consider getting in touch with a Grotto of the National Speleological Society at or a qualified cave club. These groups are skilled and will train you. Without sufficient knowledge, preparation, and equipment, cave exploring can lead to serious injury or death.

Are you as fascinated by ancient human history as I am? The technology of today is mind-blowing, but it’s interesting to see the path that we took to get here. Whether it’s the implementation of irrigation or the early forms of language that evolved into sophisticated writing and speech today, you must agree that humans are quite remarkable. In this article, we’re going to take a look at one of these forms of primitive human creation by examining some of the oldest cave paintings in the world.

It’s hard to imagine living where we are now, but 200 years ago. Have you tried 1000 years? What about 10,000? Some of the oldest cave paintings that we know of are even older than that.

Based on the location and types of art, we can determine subtle intricacies about the culture and lifestyle of a particular tribe of people. These people may have had no smart phones or self-driving cars, but they still lived a life. Without attempting to produce art, who knows whether they would have reached any form of written communication. Back then, this was all they had to store their fears, feelings, hopes, and dreams.

We’ll start with the oldest, but each of these examples is significantly older than almost anything you’ll see in your daily life. What do these cave paintings mean to you?

The Hunting Party: Indonesia, 44000 Years Old

An image of the Hunting Party artwork, the oldest cave painting in the world thus far.

The oldest known figurative cave painting might reside in Indonesia. The art depicts a scene of a hunting party, and is estimated 44,000 years old.

This painting wasn’t just random markings from 44,000 years ago; it tells a complicated story. Tiny hunters with spears and ropes are shown pursuing jungle buffaloes and wild pigs. The oldest figurative painting they analyzed was an image of a wild cow.

With this discovery, an approximately 37,000-year-old painting held the title. That painting, which I’ll cover next, led scientists to believe that humans had begun painting caves in Europe. Thanks to the recently discovered Indonesian art, however, we are now a little closer to the truth.

What’s also interesting is that these weren’t just discovered now; the works had been known for years. People simply assumed that they weren’t as old as they really are.

The reason this type of art is called “figurative art” is significant. The drawings of the people in the cave paintings show what appears to be human, but also not exactly human. They shared features or characteristics of animals, such as a birdlike head or tail. Adam Brumm, a professor of archaeology, felt it suggests that ancient humans were capable of imagining things, since these kinds of creatures certainly never existed in reality.

A technique known as uranium-series analysis is used to provide accurate estimations of cave paintings like these.

Chauvet Cave: France, 37000 Years Old

The gorges of the Ardèche region in France host numerous caves, and many have some extra importance due to geological or archaeological findings.

Chauvet Cave is one of the most significant prehistoric art sites here, discovered in 1994 and achieving World Heritage Status in 2014. Inside, some of the oldest cave paintings ever discovered were accompanied with fossilized remains and markings from a variety of animals. Some of these animals are now extinct.

A French archaeologist named Jean Clottes studied the site extensively. Estimates placed the age at about 30,000 years. Using radiocarbon dates, scientists determined that there were two periods of habitation by humans, with most of the drawings dating to the earlier period of about 33,500 to 37,000 years ago. These time periods refer to the Aurignacian (30,000 to 32,000 years ago) and Gravettian (25,000 to 27,000 years ago) eras.

The art itself includes hundreds of animal paintings of 13 separate species. Interestingly, the walls are donned with predatory animals rather than herbivores that are typically found in the oldest Paleolithic cave paintings. Lions, bears, hyenas and leopards clearly fascinated or tormented these people, or both. Rhinoceroses are shown in the image below.

An image of a herd of rhinos drawn in black charcoal, inside Chauvet Cave of France. This is the site of the second oldest cave paintings in the world.

As of now, there is some debate about the dates of these paintings. Some archaeologists believe that the black paintings, like the rhinos, are from the Early Magdalenian period, which occurred some 10,000 to 18,000 years ago. However, radiocarbon dating still holds that these samples are from the Aurignacian period as mentioned before.

Lascaux Caves: France, 17000 Years Old

Perhaps the most famous caves on this list, the Lascaux Caves received notoriety almost immediately, despite being surpassed in 1994 by the Chauvet paintings. The stunning depictions of horses, bison, and mammoths captured the imagination of all who laid eyes on them, in person or through photographs.

These caves were found in the 1940s, and quickly became the posterchild for European cave art. It’s for good reason, too. The art is expressive. It’s graceful. In some places, like the Hall of the Bulls, it’s massive and quite vivid.

There’s a hybrid human-animal figure, called the “bird man”, but its significance is unknown. Religious beliefs or shamanism are our best guess. You can see the bird man laying by a wounded bison below.

The famous "bird man" and wounded bison are found in Lascaux Cave of France, where paintings are estimated to be 17000 years old.

Due to no shortage of intrigued tourists, the caves are closed off to the public today.

Cave of Altamira: Spain, 14,000 Years Old

Located about 19 miles west of Santander in Cantabria, Spain, the Cave of Altamira preserves some astounding human history.

A hunter in 1868 discovered the cave, followed by Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola in 1876. Marcelino excavated the floor of the entrance chamber, unveiling animal bones, stone tools, and eventually the famous paintings in a separate chamber. These paintings depicted bison, and were found on the ceiling.

Despite publishing his findings back in 1880, prehistorians dismissed the paintings as forgeries, and they didn’t receive proper attention for nearly 20 years.

The Cave of Altamira measures about 971 feet long. The lateral chamber contains most of the paintings, and it’s about 60 by 30 feet (18 by 9 m), with a very low ceiling. This means that the artists inside never looked at the entire ceiling altogether. Instead, they were crouched, working above their heads, and sometimes mixing multiple works together.

Some animals included horses and a doe which measures 8.2 feet (2.5 m) long. Other creatures are unknown due to the simplicity of the work. Hand prints and hand stencils were also found. Similar to the Chauvet Cave paintings, charcoal was used here for most of the work, and radiocarbon dating works exceptionally well on charcoal. Estimates place these paintings at about 13,130 to 14,820 years.

An image shows the massive 8 foot long doe, one of the oldest cave paintings found on the ceiling in the Cave of Altamira, Spain.

What does all of this tell us?

Studies of genes and fossils tell us that the earliest version of us, Homo sapiens, evolved in Africa 200,000 years ago. With only relatively recent cave art available, however, so much is still unknown.

Did they think anything like us? Or did imagination develop much later? The more we are able to unearth through new findings and more accurate dating methods, the more we hope to understand.

The most intellectual breakthroughs include things like using fire and making tools. These occurred over a million years ago. Theorists have coined the term “higher order consciousness”, which refers to the ability to think, remember, and learn, both from the past and with a focus on the future. Without this, those early humans stood no chance of progressing much further than they did.

The Implications of Higher Order Consciousness

While it’s unknown when this change dramatically came about, its significance seems almost obvious now. A developed imagination and focus on both past and present allowed us to cooperate and survive in harsher environments than before. We began to explore more, and investigate phenomena that didn’t make sense to us. We colonized lands, formed connections with each other and established more lasting communities.

Scientists feel that until we could comprehend some of these things, we wouldn’t have attempted to create rock art, because we wouldn’t have appreciated its value. We needed higher order consciousness to do so.

All of these things and more are why learning about ancient human history can be so fascinating. The oldest cave paintings may not tell us everything about life back then, but it’s a start, and a good one.

If you’d like to learn more about cave paintings and see some more locations, check out this article next.

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