Hundreds of faint stripes, dots and wavy lines that adorn a cave wall in central France are the oldest known engravings made by Neanderthals, according to scientists who analysed the ancient markings.
The patterns, called finger flutings, appear on sections of the longest and most even wall of the cave in La Roche-Cotard in the Loire valley, and were created more than 57,000 years ago, before modern humans arrived in the region, the researchers say.
“These drawings have been applied, are structured, and were not made quickly or without prior thought,” said Jean-Claude Marquet, an archaeologist at the University of Tours. Some of the panels were so rich in markings they might be the product of collaborations, he added.
The cave was discovered in 1846 when quarrying work on the bank of the Loire revealed a hitherto buried entrance. Limited excavations in 1912 recovered animal bones and Neanderthal stone tools from the site, but it took more extensive digging in the 1970s and from 2008 onwards to reveal the full extent of the cave.
Today, the cave has four main connecting chambers that reach 33 metres deep into the riverbank. Neanderthals appear to have lived in the first chamber and in front of the cave entrance, where the tools and bones were found.
The engravings were spotted in the cave’s third chamber where a thin brown film covers much of the crumbly limestone wall. Marquet said that the wall was fragile. “All you had to do was touch it to leave a mark.”
Analysis of sediments that once blocked the entrance revealed that the cave was effectively sealed from the outside at least 57,000 years ago. Along with the tools unearthed at the site, this suggests that the markings could only have been made by Neanderthals who occupied Europe long before Homo sapiens reached the area about 42,000 years ago.
Nearly all of the markings appear to have been made by sweeping fingers across the soft brown film or pressing fingers into it at a height that could be reached by adults or tall teenagers. The patterns are grouped into eight separate panels, according to the study in Plos One. One panel has a series of curved lines which meet in a single point. Others bear dozens of dots, parallel stripes, and a fan-like pattern.
Previous evidence for Neanderthal engravings is patchy and largely confined to marks scratched into bones dating back 40,000 to 50,000 years ago.
Paul Pettitt, professor of Palaeolithic archaeology at Durham University, who was not involved in the research, said the researchers presented “as convincing a case as can be made, from a site disturbed by early excavations, that the animal and human marks on its walls were left long before the arrival of our own species in Europe”.
“Given that the cave’s archaeology is exclusively indicative of Neanderthals, with no evidence of subsequent Upper Palaeolithic occupation, presumably because the cave was by this time inaccessible, this provides strong indirect, cumulative evidence that Neanderthals produced the finger markings,” he added.
What the markings are meant to convey may forever remain a mystery. Marquet said that it’s vital to understand these ancient Neanderthal trackways because they are part of the past of our region and our history. “We’ll never know what they mean. We are not Neanderthals even if we have 2 to 4% of their genes.”
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