These 200,000-Year-Old Hand and Footprints Could Be the World’s Earliest Cave Art

Found at a hot spring on the Tibetan Plateau, the impressions were likely left by hominin children

Photo of hand and footprints on a tavertine boulder
Whether the ten hand and footprints constitute art is up for debate, scholars say. D.D. Zhang et al. / Science Bulletin

Between 169,000 and 226,000 years ago, two children in what is now Quesang, Tibet, left a set of handprints and footprints on a travertine boulder. Seemingly placed intentionally, the now-fossilized impressions may be the world’s oldest known parietal, or cave, art, a new study published in the journal Science Bulletin suggests.

Per a statement, experts used uranium series dating to place the prints’ creation during the mid-Pleistocene period. The ten impressions—five handprints and five footprints—are three to four times older than comparable cave paintings in Indonesia, France and Spain.

“The question is: What does this mean? How do we interpret these prints? They’re clearly not accidentally placed,” says study co-author Thomas Urban, a scientist at Cornell University’s Tree-Ring Laboratory, in the statement.

The discovery offers the earliest evidence of hominins’ presence on the Tibetan Plateau, write co-authors Matthew R. Bennett and Sally C. Reynolds for the Conversation. Additionally, the pair point out, the findings support previous research indicating that children were some of the first artists.

The hand and footprints
Researchers discovered the impressions in 2018. D.D. Zhang et al. / Science Bulletin

As Gizmodo’s Isaac Schultz reports, archaeologists found the hand and footprints—believed to belong to a 12-year-old and 7-year-old, respectively—near the Quesang Hot Spring in 2018. Though parietal art typically appears on cave walls, examples have also been found on the ground of caverns.

“How footprints are made during normal activity such as walking, running, jumping is well understood, including things like slippage,” Urban tells Gizmodo. “These prints, however, are more carefully made and have a specific arrangement—think more along the lines [of] how a child presses their handprint into fresh cement.”

Given their size and estimated age, the impressions were probably left by members by the genus Homo. The individuals may have been Neanderthals or Denisovans rather than Homo sapiens.

As the scholars note for the Conversation, hand shapes often appear in prehistoric cave art. Early artists typically fashioned these prints with stencils and pigments, which they placed along the outer edges of their hands.

Whether the newly analyzed prints can actually be classified as art is part of a larger, “considerable debate” on what constitutes art, according to the study.

This gets at a very fundamental question of what it actually means to be human.

Bennett, a geologist at Bournemouth University who specializes in ancient footprints and trackways, tells Gizmodo that the impressions’ placement appears intentional: “It the composition, which is deliberate, the fact the traces were not made by normal locomotion, and the care taken so that one trace does not overlap the next, all of which shows deliberate care.”

Other experts are more skeptical.

 “I find it difficult to think that there is an ‘intentionality’ in this design,” Eduardo Mayoral, a paleontologist at the University of Huelva in Spain who was not involved in the study, tells NBC News’ Tom Metcalfe. “And I don’t think there are scientific criteria to prove it—it is a question of faith, and of wanting to see things in one way or another.” 

Urban, for his part, argues that the study underscores the need for a broader definition of art.

 “[W]e can make a solid case that this is not utilitarian behavior,” he says in the statement. “There’s something playful, creative, possibly symbolic about this. This gets at a very fundamental question of what it actually means to be human.”

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