At prehistoric rock art sites around the world, we find mysterious messages from ancient peoples and civilizations.
Tens of thousands of years ago, artists used ochre and natural ingredients to create the world’s first art–cave paintings. From simple hand stencils to elaborate fight scenes and intricate monster-like shamanic figures, these ancient paintings allow us to consider the past.
In canyons and caves all over the world, this still-vibrant art from long ago is full of mysterious messages from ancient peoples and civilizations, allowing cultures to speak across time.
Nine Mile Canyon
Called “the longest art gallery in the world,” Utah’s Nine Mile Canyon is also one of the oldest. The part of the canyon dense with petroglyphs (etchings) is actually 40 miles long, with at least 1,000 rock art sites showcasing more than 10,000 individual images. Created by the Fremont and Ute peoples between A.D. 600 and 1300, the glyphs are etched into pink and orange sandstone cliffs, with artists favoring the areas where desert varnish has darkened the stone; chipping away at this surface creates lighter-colored figures that really “pop.” There are the long-horned sheep, as well as bison, deer, dogs, and at least three striking and memorable owls all in one panel. The anthropomorphic figures run the gamut from hunters with bows to copulating couples to figures with horned headdresses.
Coso Rock Art District
WHERE: China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station, California
In the high desert of Eastern California, you’ll find a series of canyons containing tens of thousands of rock art images, some dating back 16,000 years. This abundance makes for the greatest concentration of petroglyphs in the Western Hemisphere, all the more remarkable for its desolate and remote setting, smack in the middle of a military weapons testing site. Though the area has been designated a National Historic Monument, visiting requires an application process and a Navy-approved guide, through the Maturango Museum in Ridgecrest or the Navy’s public affairs office.
Once you get your clearance (US citizens only, sorry to say), you’ll venture forth with a group and a guide, finding panel after panel of vivid depictions of bighorn sheep, dogs, shamanic figures, shields, masks, and other symbols. There’s even a petroglyph of what some say is an attacking mountain lion, and another of what may be a prehistoric kayaker.
WHERE: Canyonlands National Park, Utah
You have to break a sweat to see Horseshoe Canyon’s aptly named Great Gallery, featuring life-sized figures in shades of red, white, and brown. After a long drive on gravel roads, you hike down into a steep-walled canyon (round trip 7 miles). The reward is the best-preserved and most important collection of Barrier Canyon-style rock art in the country (Horseshoe Canyon was once Barrier Canyon, which lent its name to this style of prehistoric art, up to 6000 years old). Painted on a rock overhang, the Great Gallery is almost 200 feet long, and contains 20 intricately decorated humanoid figures, lacking arms and legs and appearing to be hovering in space. The figures are otherworldly; some think of them as ghosts, calling the Great Gallery the Holy Ghost panel.
Cueva de las Manos
Tucked into an isolated river valley in Argentina’s Patagonia region, the Cave of Hands is hard to get to but well worth the trip. Prehistoric paintings from different time periods leap off the cave walls in still-vibrant shades of black, ochre, and red. There are detailed hunting scenes, often featuring as prey the guanaco, a type of llama. But the highlight and the cave’s namesake is the Cueva de las Manos (“Cave of Hands”), a concentration of hundreds of handprints, which look as if they’re waving to you from some 7,000 years back.
Cave of Swimmers
On the walls of a cave in the Sahara Desert in Southwest Egypt, prehistoric artists have painted goats, giraffes, and dogs, as well as people doing what looks like a Neolithic dog paddle. Swimmers in a waterless desert? Some scientists speculate that the swimmers, painted about 7,000 years ago, prove that at that time the area was fertile grassland, dotted with lakes. The cave is featured in Michael Ondaatje’s book, The English Patient, which was made into a movie in 1996.
The paintings in Laas Geel are said be some of the most vivid and well-preserved rock art in Africa. In ten rock alcoves (shallow caves or overhangs) there are large striking depictions of cows and bulls, some in ceremonial robes. Dwarfed by the cattle are humans thought to be herders, from a time when the now-desert region was fertile enough to support herds of animals. Locals have known about the art for centuries, but it was only in 2002 that a team of French archeologists brought it to international attention. The area is technically in Somaliland, which declared its independence from Somalia in 1991 but has yet to be recognized by the international community. That, along with Western countries’ travel warnings for Somalia, means that the site isn’t seeing many international visitors these days.
In a dramatic landscape of rock arches, eroded sandstone pillars, and steep cliffs lies an even more dramatic concentration of about 15,000 paintings and engravings, some dating back as far as 6000 B.C. The earliest are thought to evoke magic or religious practices, and in fact, ethnobotonist and author Terrance McKenna speculated in Food of the Gods that Tassili n’Ajjer depictions of what may be humans with mushrooms in their hands or even growing out of their bodies are proof that the Neolithic peoples of the area used psilocybin mushrooms as part of their religious rituals. Many animals are also depicted, from crocodiles to hippopotamuses to domesticated cattle, along with humans engaged in herding, hunting, and what appears to be dancing.
WHERE: South Africa
At the base of sheer cliffs, in shallow caves and rock overhangs, is the largest collection of rock art in sub-Saharan Africa. The oldest paintings date back about 2,400 years and are the work of the San people, who were eventually pushed out of the area by other tribes and by European colonizers. But the San left their mark, in red, yellow, black and white, painting animals, human figures, and mysterious objects and patterns that inspire much speculation but no easy answers. In the paintings, humans hunt, or walk with digging sticks and sacks on their back, no doubt in search of the tubers important to their diet. Of the animals portrayed, elands (large antelopes) figure most prominently, suggesting that they were very important to the San.
In Australia’s Northern Territory is one of the largest concentrations of rock art in the world. Located in Kakadu National Park, the paintings also serve as a record of Aboriginal life over the past 20,000 years, the longest such historical and cultural record known to exist. Human figures, intricate symbols, and animals are depicted, including extinct animals such as the marsupial tapir. The paintings also depict events, such as the Aboriginal people’s first contact with Europeans, as well as ceremonies and creation myths. Many older paintings are covered by younger ones, a practice explained by modern-day Aboriginal people as signifying that the act of painting is more important than the painting itself.
Called the “Sistine Chapel of Prehistory,” Lascaux Cave, in France’s Dordogne region, was discovered in 1940 by teenager Marcel Ravidat and his dog, Robot. Down a long passageway were thousands of depictions of animals—from horses to bulls to a lone rhinoceros—still vibrant after 20,000 years. People flocked to the cave complex; by 1955, more than 1000 visitors a day tramped through, creating conditions for fungi and algae to infest the walls and damage the art. The cave was closed to the public in 1963. A partial replica (Lascaux II) opened in 1983; in 2012, a traveling exhibit, Lascaux III, showcased five life-size reproductions, including the remarkable scene of swimming stags.
In December 2016, Lauscaux IV opened to much fanfare. This replica features painstaking recreations of both the art and the sensory experience of the original cave, with temperature changes, scents and sounds meant to evoke the original cave complex.
Discovered in 1994, Chauvet Cave in southern France is considered one of the most significant prehistoric art sites in the world. As far back as 36,000 years ago, artists here painted not just the familiar herbivores found in many Paleolithic sites—such as horses, cattle, and mammoths—but also rendered predators like panthers and bears, along with extinct subspecies like cave lions and cave hyenas. The cave is off-limits to the public, but in 2015 a replica, the Caverne du Pont-d’Arc, opened a few kilometers from the original site. The environment is designed to replicate not only the art but, like the Chauvet IV replica, to evoke the entire cave experience. If you can’t make the trip, make sure to see Werner Herzog’s beautiful film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams.
In 1879, an eight-year-old girl led her amateur archeologist dad to the opening of what would become known as Altamira Cave. A series of twisting passages and chambers served as galleries for a menagerie of bison, wild boar, deer and horses rendered in rich red and black. The earliest figures were painted about 36,000 years ago, and during many periods the artists used the contours of the cave walls to create a three-dimensional effect. At the time of their discovery, the paintings were so well preserved that the archeologist who discovered them was accused of forgery; later discoveries and scholarship validated his find.
As in other caves, high numbers of visitors led to changes in air quality and mold growing on the walls, damaging the art. The cave was closed to the public in 1977, and in 2001, a high-quality replica and museum opened nearby.
Over a mile and a half deep, with many chambers and halls, Bulgaria’s Magura Cave is home to well-preserved art from about 10,000 years ago. Painted with bat guano, the art depicts hunting scenes, religious ceremonies, deities specific to the area, and even a solar calendar. The cave is also known for its spectacular stalactites and stalagmites, and for the discovery of bones from prehistoric species like the cave bear and the cave hyena. In one of the larger galleries, with vaulted ceilings, concerts are held at Christmas and Easter.
The largest petroglyph site in all of Central Asia, Saimaluu Tash is also remarkably remote, with more than 10,000 petroglyphs scattered across the slopes of two glacial moraines at around 3000 meters (about 9850 feet) above sea level. The road to the site is open only in summer; for the rest of the year, it is covered in snow. The art depicts animals, humans, hunting, plowing, deities, and shamanic figures. The site has been sacred for millennia, with ancient priests conducting sacrificial rites to the sun god and later generations creating art that serves as a guide to their daily life and beliefs. Modern-day inhabitants of the area still consider the site scared, bringing offerings from the valleys below.
Thought to be the oldest example of figurative art in the world, these hand stencils and graceful renderings of local animals date from about 40,000 years ago. That makes this prehistoric treasure of Indonesia even older than the famed prehistoric rock art sites in France and Spain, and challenges the long-held Eurocentric idea that cave art (not to mention creativity) originated in western Europe. Visits must be arranged through an Indonesian university, such as the University of Hasnuddin.