Oldest known Neanderthal cave engravings discovered in France

The latest sequence of non-figurative marks was discovered at the La Roche-Cotard cave in France's Centre-Val de Loire region.
Mrigakshi Dixit
Examples of engravings discovered in the Roche-Cotard cave.
Examples of engravings discovered in the Roche-Cotard cave.

Jean-Claude Marquet, CC-BY 4.0 

The oldest recorded Neanderthal marks on a cave wall have been discovered in France.

A team of experts led by Jean-Claude Marquet of the University of Tours, France, discovered the fresh archeological evidence. 

According to the official release, a plethora of archeological evidence gathered from many regions of the world has revealed insights into the "cultural complexity" of these extinct ancient human species. 

However, not much is known about the symbolic or artistic inscriptions they left behind on cave walls. One major issue is that just a few symbolic markings have been attributed to Neanderthals to date, and the interpretation of these symbols is still up for debate.

Therefore, this new finding is remarkably important for archeologists. 

What do the newly-found markings represent? 

The latest sequence of non-figurative marks was discovered at the La Roche-Cotard cave in France's Centre-Val de Loire region. The authors regarded these as "finger-flutings" – markings created by human hands.

The scientists studied these mysterious symbols using photogrammetry and plotting analysis, which resulted in the production of 3D representations of the engravings. The 3D method aided in the comprehensive examination of the form, spacing, and arrangement of these markings on the cave wall.  

The markings were also compared to other known and experimental human markings. It was noted that the markings were "deliberate, organized, and intentional shapes" etched by human hands.

Dating of the cave 

They used dating techniques to determine the precise period when these patterns were etched on the cave walls. 

The optically stimulated luminescence dating was used to study the cave sediments. The findings revealed that markings were made by Neanderthals around 57,000 years ago.

The authors add: “Fifteen years after the resumption of excavations at the La Roche-Cotard site, the engravings have been dated to over 57,000 years ago and, thanks to stratigraphy, probably to around 75,000 years ago, making this the oldest decorated cave in France, if not Europe!”

Moreover, this period predates the arrival of Homo sapiens in the region by quite some time. As a result, the carvings can only be attributed to Neanderthals. To confirm the findings, the researchers found other compelling evidence from the cave.  

The discovery of Mousterian stone tools was another intriguing find, serving as solid confirmation that Neanderthals made the markings. This is because the Mousterian stone too making technique is mostly linked to Neanderthals. 

The major reason behind the markings is difficult to decipher because they are largely non-figurative and unambiguous symbols. Nonetheless, the record suggests that Neanderthal’s behavior and activities were as complex and diversified as those of our own ancestors.

The findings have been reported in the journal PLOS ONE

Study abstract:

Here we report on Neanderthal engravings on a cave wall at La Roche-Cotard (LRC) in central France, made more than 57±3 thousand years ago. Following human occupation, cave was completely sealed by cold-period sediments, which prevented access until its discovery in the 19th century and first excavation in the early 20th century. The timing of the closure of the cave is based on 50 optically stimulated luminescence ages derived from sediment collected inside and from around the cave. The anthropogenic origin of the spa- tially-structured, non-figurative marks found within the cave is confirmed using taphonomic, traceological and experimental evidence. Cave closure occurred significantly before the regional arrival of H. sapiens, and all artifacts from within the cave are typical Mousterian lithics; in Western Europe these are uniquely attributed to H. neanderthalensis. We conclude that the LRC engravings are unambiguous examples of Neanderthal abstract design.

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