Neanderthals used their fingers to carve symbols into the wall of a cave in France at least 57,000 years ago. The engravings are some of the oldest known examples of Neanderthal art and are possibly the very oldest.
“The engravings could only have been made by Neanderthals,” says Jean-Claude Marquet at the University of Tours in France, because they are the only hominins to have left artefacts in the cave and the entrance was sealed by sediments until modern times.
La Roche-Cotard cave is situated in the Loire valley and consists of four consecutive chambers. It has been excavated on and off since 1912, with the most recent round beginning in 2008.
Neanderthals lived in the front chamber and entered the second and third, says Marquet. Excavations have unearthed many distinctive “Mousterian” stone tools, which are associated with Neanderthals and not with Homo sapiens.
The walls of the third chamber, called the pillar chamber, are made of tuff, a soft rock primarily formed from solidified volcanic ash. Here, the team found eight panels covered with markings. These include a great many lines traced by fingers: often straight lines, but sometimes also circles or ovals. Some seem to be arranged in larger patterns. One panel has a cluster of more than 100 dots. A subgroup of the engravings was made with tools like flint, antler and wood rather than with fingertips.
It isn’t clear whether the engravings “represent symbolic thinking”, Marquet and his colleagues write in their paper. “Interpretation and meaning are very complicated [for us] to imagine,” says Marquet.
The attribution of the engravings to Neanderthals, not modern humans, rests partly on the Mousterian tools found in the cave and partly on the timing. Marquet’s team dated sediments from the cave entrance to at least 57,000 years ago, and probably around 75,000 years ago. This means the entrance was sealed around that time.
Neanderthals lived in Europe and parts of Asia for hundreds of thousands of years. They disappeared around 40,000 years ago, not long after some modern humans began arriving in Europe in large numbers around 45,000 years ago, following their emergence from Africa. This is long after La Roche-Cotard was sealed.
“It’s well dated,” says Paola Villa at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “The fact they’re all Mousterian materials suggests that they are right.”
While many examples of prehistoric art are known from Europe and elsewhere, most are from the past few tens of thousands of years, and have been attributed to H. sapiens. Claims of Neanderthal art have been highly controversial. Strong evidence finally emerged in 2018, when researchers demonstrated that art found in several Spanish caves was more than 45,000 years old, and in some cases over 60,000 years old.
The story has since become more complicated because evidence has emerged that modern humans did intermittently enter Europe earlier than 45,000 years ago. Some briefly lived at Grotte Mandrin in northern France around 54,000 years ago and others were in Greece 210,000 years ago.
Nevertheless, on the balance of probabilities, Neanderthals were probably responsible for the engravings, says April Nowell at the University of Victoria in Canada. “I have no trouble in accepting these as hominin-produced digital tracings and no trouble accepting that it dates to a period where only Neanderthals were in the region.”
The engravings in La Roche-Cotard add to the growing evidence of Neanderthals producing symbols and symbolic artefacts. Back in 2003, Marquet and his colleague Michel Lorblanchet at the French National Center for Scientific Research described an artefact from La Roche-Cotard: a piece of flint with a bone splinter driven through it, which they interpreted as an attempt to represent a face, presumably that of a Neanderthal. More recently, a symbol like a hashtag was found in Gorham’s cave in Gibraltar, which was probably made by a Neanderthal.
Clearly, some Neanderthals engaged in these behaviours, says Nowell. “But I do find it interesting that all of these examples seem to be one-offs in a way.” There are no other known Neanderthal sites with engravings like those in La Roche-Cotard or the one in Gorham’s cave – whereas prehistoric art by H. sapiens is more common and contains repeating elements.
In the same way that a person on the beach may doodle shapes in the sand, the Neanderthals may have created symbols with little or no shared meaning, says Nowell. “I think we don’t yet have that kind of community-level symbolic behaviour.”
It may be that modern humans picked up some of Neanderthals’ symbolic behaviours and developed them further, says Villa. “There is clear evidence that they interbred,” she says, so they could also have learned from each other.