Earliest Neanderthal cave engravings?

A set of marks in a cave in central France may be the earliest example of Neanderthal cave-wall engravings found to date.

Tens of thousands of years ago, the entrance of La Roche-Cotard cave, which sits on the north bank of the Loire River, was sealed shut by flood sediments from the river below and the surrounding plateau. The cave remained buried for millennia, until it was rediscovered by quarrying work in 1846. Early excavations were carried out in 1912, followed by more extensive research in the 1970s and from 2008 onwards.

Analysis of marks on the walls of La Roche-Cotard cave has confirmed that they were made by prehistoric fingers. 

These excavations discovered evidence of hominin occupation in the cave, including Mousterian stone tools and animal bones with evidence of cut-marks, burning, and other modifications. They also identified a group of non-figurative markings on the walls of the cave that looked like they may have been created by human fingers. Further survey in 2013 and from 2016 determined that these ‘engravings’ comprise more than 400 lines, dots, and patterns, organised into eight panels, shallowly carved into the soft chalk wall.

Now researchers have analysed these marks in detail and compared them to examples recreated using experimental archaeology in order to confirm that they are indeed anthropogenic in origin. The team found that it was possible to distinguish clearly between the sets of elongated or dotted, spatially organised marks created by prehistoric humans and the randomly distributed animal scratch-marks, impressions left by natural geological processes, and toolmarks from the 1912 excavations. The experimental archaeology confirmed, too, that the human-made marks were most likely created using fingers rather than stone or bone tools. The research further concluded that it was very unlikely that the marks could have been made accidentally, or for any functional reason. Instead, they appear to have been created in a deliberate, structured way, often utilising the natural shape of the cave wall. There is no way to know what these marks may have meant to their creators, but it is possible that they were the result of some kind of symbolic thought.

The marks appear to have been organised into groups, possibly reflecting a deliberate, structured composition and perhaps even some kind of symbolic thought. 

The next step was determining when these marks were created, and by whom. OSL dating confirmed that the cave was sealed shut around 57,000 years ago and stratigraphic study suggests that the finger-flutings could have been made around 75,000 years ago. This date means that access to cave was shut off – and the marks created – well before we have firm evidence of Homo sapiens in the region. When combined with the fact that all of the artefacts found in the cave are typical of the Mousterian industry, which is attributed to Homo neanderthalensis alone in western Europe, it is almost certain that the marks were made by Neanderthals.

The site’s early excavations mean there should be a degree of caution (although traces left in 1912 are easily distinguished from ancient marks), but the findings at La Roche-Cotard are widely accepted as convincing evidence for the oldest unambiguous Neanderthal cave art currently known. This makes it potentially a very exciting discovery: such a composition offers further support to arguments that Neanderthals took part in conscious creative activities and had much more complex behaviour than once thought.

The research has been published in the online journal PLOS ONE (https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0286568).

Images: Jean-Claude Marquet