Paintings and etchings on rocks started tens of thousands of years before the birth of civilizations like Greece and Mesopotamia. While most remain enigmatic, they provide important clues to daily life, religious beliefs, and culture change among prehistoric humans. It’s rather miraculous that these delicate, ancient records have survived for so long in the face of erosion, war, and damage wrought by humans.
Each year, archaeologists document new sites with cave paintings, particularly in Asia, Australia, and Africa. But as quickly as these sites are identified, others are damaged by vandalism, looting, human development, and natural forces such as erosion. Here are some spectacular examples of cave paintings from around the world, many of which are under threat.
1. EL CASTILLO, SPAIN
The oldest known cave painting in the world is not a magnificent display of dancing horses, thundering bison, or leaping warriors. El Castillo, in the Cantabria region of northern Spain, holds thousands of years’ worth of spectacular prehistoric art. But the beginning of it all, at the end of a long passage so narrow that one must crawl through parts of it, is a simple disc-shaped blotch of red paint. Archaeologists believe the painting to be at least 40,800 years old. It was made not long after humans began migrating out of Africa and into Europe, where they met their predecessors, the Neanderthals.
In fact, its age suggests the possibility that the simple painting might have actually been made by Neanderthals who still inhabited the region, though the evidence is far from conclusive. Some archaeologists still doubt the Neanderthals were capable of producing symbolic art, but the theory is gaining wider acceptance.
2. SULAWESI, INDONESIA
For a time, the El Castillo site was believed to contain the oldest known cave paintings. But in 2014, thousands of miles away in Indonesia, archaeologists made another stunning discovery. Seven caves on the island of Sulawesi contained stenciled handprints and primitive drawings of fruit-eating pigs called babirusas. The paintings were already known to locals, but no one guessed how old they were. Scientists estimated the paintings to be nearly as old as the El Castillo site—and maybe even older.
The discovery challenges the long-held belief that human art emerged first in Europe, and suggests that rock art may have emerged at around the same time in both Europe and Asia—or perhaps existed thousands of years earlier among the first modern humans who migrated out of Africa.
3. ARNHEM LAND PLATEAU, AUSTRALIA
While Spain, France, and Indonesia can boast some of the oldest cave paintings on record, recent research suggests some sites in Australia may rival their age. One of the most magnificent sites, which has been described as Australia’s Sistine Chapel, is Nawarla Gabarnmang in the country’s Northern Territory. Huge, ornate animal figures cover the ceiling of this rock shelter carved out by a combination of fantastic early human engineering and natural erosion.
The oldest paintings at Nawarla Gabarnmang are estimated at 28,000 years, but some may be even older: One painting at a nearby rock shelter depicts a giant flightless bird, the megafauna Genyornis, thought to have gone extinct 40,000 years ago. So is the rock art older than believed, or did the bird survive longer than current science suggests? It’s an ongoing debate.
The site also features spectacular fish, crocodiles, wallabies, lizards, turtles, and other animals, as well as willowy limbed people with detailed ornamentation. Unlike many sites around the world, people here still have a direct connection to these paintings made by their ancestors tens of thousands of years ago. The Jawoyn tribe remain on their traditional lands and retain great knowledge of the symbolic significance of paintings here and at many other rock art sites across their territory.
4. APOLLO 11 STONES, NAMIBIA
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Discovered in a cave by a German archaeologist while NASA’s 1969 moon mission was unfolding (and so named Apollo 11), these painted stone slabs in southwestern Namibia use charcoal, ochre, and white paints to create creatures that resemble cats, herd animals, and possibly a zebra, ostrich, or giraffe (interpretations vary). Technically, these are paintings found in a cave and not on a cave, but at 26,000 to 28,000 years old, they are the oldest representational art found in Africa so far—though that doesn’t mean there aren’t older sites waiting to be discovered.
5. PECH MERLE CAVE, FRANCE
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There is something so striking about the two spotted horses painted on the walls of the Pech Merle cave in south-central France 25,000 years ago. Scientists used to believe that the images were drawn from imagination, perhaps glimpsed in a spiritual vision. But recent DNA evidence reveals that such spotted horses actually existed in the region at that time, suggesting that the artists might have been inspired by real animals they observed around them. A second area painted 5000 years later features a group of bison, mammoth, horses, and other animals detailed in black manganese oxide and red ochre.
6. TADRART ACACUS, LIBYA
Deep in the Sahara Desert in southwestern Libya, thousands of paintings and rock carvings in Tadrart Acacus tell a very different story of this parched land—a time when water and lush vegetation were plentiful here, and animals like giraffes, rhinos, and crocodiles roamed across what is now sand and rocky outcroppings. The oldest art here dates back 12,000 years. People begin appearing in paintings starting about 10,000 years ago, and 6000-year-old paintings chronicle the shift from a hunter-gatherer society to a pastoral life that the wetter landscape supported at the time.
But as desertification set in around 4000 years ago, the art changed again. Paintings of horses and camels, animals well-suited to survival in a drier climate, appeared along with a form of writing on the rocks. By 100 CE, people had left as desert took over and the region became inhospitable. Tadrart Acacus is a remarkable record of the different groups of people who lived in this place over time, and how climate change and desertification affected those who once flourished here.
7. BHIMBETKA, INDIA
There are around 600 caves and rock shelters in Madhya Pradesh, containing paintings made between 1000 and 12,000 years ago (with some possibly dating back much further). These prehistoric snapshots are simply drawn, most often in red and white. Yet they are remarkable in their scope, showing a vast array of hunter-gatherer activities and intimate glimpses of family and community life. Human interactions with animals such as buffalo, tigers, giraffes, elk, lions, leopards, elephants and rhinos show how societies here shifted from hunting and gathering to herding. Some paintings document the harvesting of fruit and honey and the domestication of animals; others show creatures that have long since disappeared from India. There are community and household scenes of birth, death, hunting, food gathering, and dancing. The dance scenes are particularly vibrant, sometimes featuring masked figures involved in ceremonial activities and movements. But what’s most remarkable is that these paintings show how technology and artistic sensibilities changed over thousands of years.
8. LAAS GAAL, SOMALIA
Eight caves make up Laas Gaal, which feature some of the earliest rock art in the horn of Africa. They are estimated to be between 5000 and 11,000 years old. Rich red, orange, and cream-colored figures with elegant, well-defined curves and straight edges include cows in ornate ceremonial robes, as well as giraffes, dogs, jackals, elephants, and giraffes. Not much is known about the people who lived here at the time, but many locals still treat the caves as sacred.
9. CUEVAS DE LAS MANOS, ARGENTINA
This extraordinary 9000-year-old site in Patagonia features an entire panel filled with red-and-black stenciled hands. Handprints are a common motif in prehistoric rock art throughout much of the world, but the concentration of hands on the uneven face of this cave is mesmerizing; it’s impossible not to feel the presence of the people who touched this rock so long ago. In addition, the site also features a hunting scene of game animals like guanacos (a camel relative) and the flightless rhea bird.
10. CAVE OF SWIMMERS, EGYPT
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If you’ve ever seen the film adaptation of Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient, you’ve seen images from this cave on Egypt’s Gilf Kebir plateau, well-hidden in the remote desert. The book was inspired by explorer László Almásy, the first European to find and describe the curious human figures that appear to float or swim across the rock wall. Almásy theorized that the swimming figures were an indication that the desert had once been a much wetter climate. That turned out to be true, though it wasn’t proven by the paintings. The precise meaning of the swimming figures, along with the other human forms, stenciled handprints, and the hoofprint of an antelope that adorn the walls, remain a mystery. Scientists have estimated that the paintings were made between 6000 and 8000 years ago.
11. MAGURA CAVE, BULGARIA
The 15-million-year-old Magura site is one of the largest caves in Bulgaria. Its paintings cover a period from 8000 BCE to 1200 BCE, and there’s something special about the art here: It’s painted with bat guano. (The paintings share the cave with eight species of bats.)
The dark figures of hunts, dances, religious ceremonies, and a variety of animals stand out on the white limestone walls of the cave. There’s even a solar calendar that accurately calculates a 366-day year divided into 12 months.
12. VALLEGRANDE, BOLIVIA
Bolivia’s Rock Art Research Society got started nearly 30 years ago, and since then has documented a thousand sites around the South American country. The majority of the cave paintings are in the Andean region and eastern lowlands, and, all told, represent several millennia worth of artistic effort. Among the most distinctive paintings in Bolivia are the thousand-year-old red mask-like designs in Vallegrande, which also features stenciled hands, abstract motifs, and animals, some of which may have been around since 6000 BCE.
13. GREAT MURAL REGION OF BAJA, MEXICO
For thousands of years, a mysterious civilization chronicled their way of life in hundreds of rock shelters and cliffside caves at various mountain sites up and down the Baja California peninsula. Now known as the Great Mural Region of Baja, these sites feature paintings created more than 7000 years ago, and new artwork continued until around the arrival of the Spanish. Together they represent one of the highest concentrations of rock art paintings in the world. They tend to depict humans and the wide range of animals that were significant to physical and spiritual survival, including deer, mountain sheep, vultures, enormous whales, and other fish. Many are quite large, measuring more than 12 feet high.
14. CHUMASH PAINTED CAVE, UNITED STATES
Discreetly tucked away in the Santa Ynez Mountains above Santa Barbara, Chumash Painted Cave State Park holds some of the most colorful pictographs in the world. The Chumash, whose traditional territory extended from Malibu Canyon north along the coast past San Luis Obispo, probably made the paintings for religious reasons, and they remain sacred to the tribe today. The red, yellow, black and white paints were used to create elaborate iconography, such as sunlike circles adorned with intricate mandala-like detailing—lines, loops and dots of various colors. One of the most intriguing features is a record of a solar eclipse, represented by a large black circle, along with objects that may represent stars and planets. Others depict naturalistic objects like animals believed to have supernatural powers: rattlesnakes, grizzly bears, and centipedes. The paintings were made at different times during the past 1,000 years or so, reflecting close attention and reverence for celestial and earthly forces.
15. DRAKENSBERG, SOUTH AFRICA
In the Drakensberg mountains of South Africa and Lesotho, prehistory comes to life in vivid animal and human forms painted by the San (Bushmen) tribe over a period of almost 3000 years. One outstanding mural of animals measures 20 feet long. Vibrantly colored mythical creatures have sophisticated, multicolor shading and outlining that give a three-dimensional effect. Some figures have characteristics of several different animals, or combine human and animal attributes. These hybrid creatures represented the transformation of a shaman upon entering the spirit world during a trance state. The shaman would return to this world and paint things like human figures with antelope eyes, ears, and markings, which represented his receipt of the animal’s spiritual power.