Science: Remarkable Neanderthal Engravings Preserved Unseen in Cave for Over 57,000 Years

Engravings discovered in La Roche-Cotard cave
Jean-Claude Marquet, CC-BY 4.0

More than 57,000 years ago, Paleolithic humans found themselves standing before the walls of La Roche-Cotard cave, lured by its soft, chalky rock that resembled a blank canvas. With their fingers, these creative cave dwellers intentionally etched enduring lines and dots onto the cave walls, unknowingly creating the oldest known example of Neanderthal cave engravings.

A recent study published in PLOS One analyzed and 3D modeled these captivating markings, confirming that they were deliberate creations by human hands. The study also revealed that the cave had been sealed up with the engravings at least 57,000 and as long as 75,000 years ago, predating the arrival of Homo sapiens in Europe.

The presence of Neanderthal stone tools further supports the notion that Neanderthals were the creators of this cave art. This discovery challenges the long-held belief that Neanderthals were incapable of complex thinking beyond survival. Archaeologist and study co-author Jean-Claude Marquet suggests that this finding should prompt prehistorians to reconsider doubts about the skills of Neanderthals.

La Roche-Cotard cave is located on a wooded hillside above the Loire River. It was first discovered in 1846 during the construction of a railroad line. Excavations in 1912 revealed the presence of prehistoric stone tools, as well as remains of bison, horses, and deer. The finger tracings on the cave walls were initially noticed in the 1970s. The recent study meticulously documented and modeled these panels, comparing them with other known examples of Paleolithic engravings.

The researchers concluded that the panels were not hastily made, but instead created with intention and structure. They deduced that the engravings were made by human hands based on their shape and the material of the cave wall. The soft chalky rock, known as tuffeau, consists of fine quartz grains and ancient mollusk shell fragments. When a finger touches the fragile sandy-clay film covering the rock, it leaves an impact, and when the finger moves, an elongated trace is left behind.

While the meaning of these engravings remains unknown, their existence provides compelling evidence that Neanderthals possessed artistic abilities. The presence of Neanderthal stone tools and geological evidence of the cave’s sealing add further weight to this conclusion. Archaeologists and researchers have long known that our ancestors had a penchant for visual expression, as evidenced by the carving of zigzag patterns by Homo erectus over half a million years ago and handprints and footprints placed by hominin children some 200,000 years ago.

Neanderthals may also be responsible for the world’s oldest cave paintings, as evidenced by 65,000-year-old red pigmented designs found in Spanish caves. These early artworks, along with the Leang Tedongnge cave paintings estimated to be 45,500 years old, challenge the notion that Neanderthals were incapable of complex artistic expression. Instead, the ability to create cave art appears to be less about the capabilities of a particular species and more about the societal and cultural context in which they lived.

In conclusion, the discovery of Neanderthal cave engravings in La Roche-Cotard cave sheds new light on the complexity of our closest relatives. This finding underscores the need to reassess preconceived notions about Neanderthal skills and their capacity for artistic expression. These engravings serve as a testament to the creativity and ingenuity of our ancient ancestors and remind us that our collective human story is richer and more multidimensional than we previously believed.

 

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