Archaeologists Discover World's Oldest Neanderthal Cave Engravings

The mysterious 57,000-year-old designs open up a new window into the lives and culture of our ancestors.
Archaeologists Discover World's Oldest Neanderthal Cave Engravings
Image: Marquet, Freiesleben et. al. 
ABSTRACT breaks down mind-bending scientific research, future tech, new discoveries, and major breakthroughs.

Scientists have discovered the oldest engravings made by Neanderthals in the world on the walls of a French cave, reports a new study. The captivating lines, curves, and dots, made by Neanderthal fingers, date back at least 57,000 years—and possibly as early as 75,000 years—making them the oldest known graphic traces of any human species on a shelter wall in Europe.

The discovery that Neanderthals carved out these ancient lines, curves, and dots inside La Roche-Cotard, a cave near the Loire River, illuminates the sophisticated and symbolic behaviors of our long-lost relatives, who belonged to the same human family as Homo sapiens before they went extinct about 40,000 years ago. 


Our human ancestors were so closely related to Neanderthals that our species interbred, leaving a small percentage of Neanderthal DNA in many people alive today. Yet despite this shared ancestry, our extinct cousins were saddled for decades with unflattering assessments about their cognitive abilities relative to Homo sapiens. In recent years, the brutish stereotype of Neanderthals has been challenged by a series of discoveries that suggest that they were culturally complex humans who buried their dead and expressed themselves artistically, though evidence of their symbolic behaviors is rare and often hotly debated among experts.

Now, scientists led by Jean-Claude Marquet, an archaeology research associate at the University of Tours, have presented strong evidence that a series of engravings at La Roche-Cotard—a cave that was sealed off for tens of thousands of years until 1846—are unambiguously Neanderthal in origin.

The graphic patterns at La Roche-Cotard demonstrate that Neanderthals engaged in “elaborate and organized social behaviors that show no obvious differences from those of their contemporaries, Anatomically Modern Humans, south of the Mediterranean,” according to the team’s study, which was published on Wednesday in the journal PLoS One.

“The engravings discovered at La Roche-Cotard constitute the oldest graphic evidence known to date, on the walls of a cave or a shelter, in Europe,” said Eric Robert, an archaeologist at the French National Museum of Natural History and a co-author of the study, in an email with Motherboard that included Marquet. “The paintings and engravings associated with Sapiens date back around 38 to 40,000 years (in Dordogne, Ardèche, Cantabria). The dates published a few years ago attributing paintings to Neanderthals in three Spanish sites remain controversial, and do not meet with the approval of the entire scientific community.”


La Roche-Cotard’s “beautiful brown walls dotted with very large cores of very hard sandstone (not flint) make this cave quite fascinating,” noted Marquet in the same thread. “When you consider that people (twice) lived in the first room of the cave without frequently going into the room (the 3rd) where the engravings are found, I find this very surprising and one wonders whether this space had a very special character; but it will obviously be impossible to know much more about it.”

Neanderthals left numerous traces of their occupation in La Roche-Cotard across thousands of years, including bones, “Mousterian” tools that are associated with Neanderthals, and an evocative face-shaped sculpture known as the “Mask of La Roche-Cotard.” 

Then, about 57,000 years ago, the cave was sealed off from the outside world due to infalling sediments, according to the team’s findings. It lay hidden for tens of thousands of years until 1846, when quarrying activities exposed its entrance, and it wasn’t excavated for another 70-odd years after that.

“The cave was discovered in 1912 by the owner of the château located with the cave in a walled property,” explained Marquet. “In just a few weeks, the discoverer and his workers emptied 95% of the sediments in the cave. He discovered 2 Mousterian layers, the tools (not the bones) of which have now been lost, but which were photographed and partly drawn and published in a small local magazine in 1913.”


“I first saw these parietal traces in 1975, after obtaining permission to enter the cave,” he continued. “I carried out three digs on the site between 1976 and 1978 in the cave and in front of the cave. At the time, Neanderthal couldn't be considered an artist because he was considered to be very different from Sapiens, brutal and unsociable.”

When Marquet eventually returned to work on the site in 2008, humanity’s condescending view toward Neanderthals had begun to evolve, raising the possibility that the engravings on the cave wall may have been made by our cousins. This idea was bolstered by the revelation that La Roche-Cotarrd had been closed off for 57,000 years, long before the arrival of Homo sapiens in this area. 

To that end, the team has spent years analyzing the engravings with sophisticated 3D-modeling techniques and cross-referencing them with other human markings. The finger-fluted engravings are clustered into groups with names like “The Circular Panel,” “The Triangular Panel,” or “The Dotted Panel” that describe their dominant geometric features.  

The new study confirms that the patterns were made by human fingers, and the timeline and archaeological context of the cave indicate that those humans must have been Neanderthals. 

But while the identity of the engravers is now known, the purpose of these engravings to their makers remains a complete mystery.


“The meaning of these lines is totally inaccessible to us,” Robert said. “They were made by extinct populations, for their contemporaries. Moreover, it is for the moment the first discovery of this type, and of this magnitude. If new discoveries are made in the future, this would allow a better perception of the graphic choices and behaviors of Neanderthal societies.” 

“However, this exceptional discovery makes it possible to widen the range of possibilities,” he added. “We already knew that Neanderthal buried his dead, that he had made ornaments,

explored the best deep underground. With the engravings of La Roche-Cotard, we have a new piece of an ever richer puzzle, which illustrates the diversity of social and cultural practices of Neanderthals.”

Even as the researchers announce this new breakthrough, they are also planning to conduct more field research and inventive techniques to try to understand “this lost humanity, whose role in the biological and cultural evolution of humans is undergoing profound revision,” according to the study.

“In this cave, there are still some lines that have not been studied and that we're going to have to look into,” Marquet concluded. “We'll never find out the meaning of these figures, but we need to make comparisons with what has been engraved in other caves already known and see if by any chance there might be traces of Neanderthals in these caves inhabited by Sapiens. Another way of finding out more about the origin of these drawings is to experiment, in another cave of course, to try and take the place of these artists of the past.”