Neanderthals created Europe’s oldest ‘intentional’ engravings up to 75,000 years ago, study suggests

According to the findings of a recent study, the earliest engravings in Europe were most likely carved by Neanderthals in a cave in France about 75,000 years ago.

When we think of ancient art, we often picture the magnificent cave paintings that have been discovered around the world. However, a new discovery shows that Neanderthals, a separate species from modern humans, may have been responsible for creating Europe’s oldest-known engravings.

Neanderthals created Europe's oldest 'intentional' engravings up to 75,000 years ago, study suggests 1
Study researchers Trine Freiesleben and Jean-Claude Marquet discuss the fingerprints and where to take optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) samples so they can date the artwork. © Kristina Thomsen; (CC-BY 4.0) / Fair Use

These engravings were found in a cave that had been sealed up for tens of thousands of years and could date back up to 75,000 years.

According to a study published on June 21 in the journal PLOS One, the researchers examined a series of non-figurative markings believed to have been created by prehistoric human fingers inside the cave of La Roche-Cotard, located 150 miles (240 kilometers) southwest of Paris.

Up until the late 19th century, sediments had kept the cave closed. Numerous stone tools found during recent digs at the location are in the style of Neanderthals, indicating that they were the ones who created the artwork.

Drawings of horses, lions, and handprints serve as well-known examples of Upper Paleolithic culture that date back 35,000 years in ancient figurative art, including wall paintings, from European locations.

Researchers have recently discovered older examples of non-utilitarian objects and art in Europe and other parts of the world, such as a 51,000-year-old chevron-engraved bone in Germany made by Neanderthals. However, Homo sapiens is credited with a 45,500-year-old drawing of a warty pig in Indonesia and a 73,000-year-old hashtag drawing in South Africa. For decades, researchers believed that these creations were hallmarks of modern human behavior.

At the cave of La Roche-Cotard, researchers found eight panels with more than 400 traces of abstract lines and dots. The researchers call these traces “engravings” because they represent the deliberate removal of material carried out with a tool or finger. “This removal of material is neither accidental nor utilitarian,” they wrote in their study, but rather “intentional and meticulous.”

Neanderthals created Europe's oldest 'intentional' engravings up to 75,000 years ago, study suggests 2
Examples of engravings discovered in the Roche-Cotard cave (Indre et Loire – France). On the left, the “circular panel” (ogive-shaped tracings) and on the right the “wavy panel” (two contiguous tracings forming sinuous lines). © Jean-Claude Marquet; (CC-BY 4.0) / Fair Use

The researchers set up an experiment in a similar cave where one person made marks on the rock wall using their fingers, bone, wood, antler, flint, and metal points. This was done to determine how the engravings were made. Then, someone else took pictures of those marks and compared the experimental marks to the ancient ones using photogrammetry technologies, a process that builds virtual 3D models from hundreds of photos.

The scientists came to the conclusion that the experimental finger markings resembled ancient carvings the most.

The discovery that Neanderthals made the engravings with their fingers, just like the researchers did, was further supported by the fact that the numerous stone tools recovered in the cave had no obvious connection to the inscriptions. The crew concluded that the majority of the markings on the cave wall are lines known as “finger flutings,” created when someone brushed their fingers flat along the silt-covered wall.

when they last came into contact with daylight. According to the investigation, the cave was sealed off at least 57,000 years ago and perhaps even 75,000.

These early dates mean it’s “highly unlikely” that anatomically modern humans had access to the inside of the cave, the researchers wrote in their study, as current evidence suggests they were not present in France until at least 54,000 years ago, whereas Neandertals appeared there around 330,000 years ago. “We conclude that the LRC engravings are unambiguous examples of Neanderthal abstract design,” they wrote.

“This study is important because it extends the antiquity of digital [finger] tracings and, for the first time, associates them with a hominin species other than Homo sapiens,” according to April Nowell, a paleolithic archaeologist at the University of Victoria in Canada who was not involved in this study.

But the significance of these engravings remains unclear. “Although the finger tracings at La Roche-Cotard are clearly intentional,” the researchers wrote, “it is not possible for us to establish if they represent symbolic thinking.”

Nowell agreed that “these tracings do not have to be symbolic any more than when someone traces their fingers in the sand on a beach.” The engravings are, however, important new information about the behavior of our Neanderthal relatives, whose culture was more complex and diverse than previously realized.

The study was originally published in the journal PLOS One on June 21.