Prehistoric Rock Art to Visit Around the World

Scientists just discovered some of the world’s oldest art in a cave in Indonesia. Want to see more prehistoric masterpieces? Here are eight other options

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A hand stencil design on the wall of a cave in Sulawesi, Indonesia. Kinez Riza

A recently released study claiming that some of the paintings in the Maros-Pangkep caves in Indonesia are nearly as old as European prehistoric cave art has reverberated through both the science and art worlds, challenging long-held Eurocentric views about the birth of human creativity. But no matter where prehistoric art began, its remnants can now be found in almost every corner of the globe, from Argentina to Africa. While scientists and researchers are busy searching the Indonesian caves for more signs of prehistoric art, consider checking out these eight examples of ancient creativity. 

Lascaux, France

In September of 1940, four boys and a dog made a discovery that would change modern understanding of art: the prehistoric paintings in Lascaux, a series of caves in the Dordogne region of France. The cave art instantly captivated the world, bringing in more than a million visitors between 1948 and 1963. The influx of tourists, however, began to damage the delicate artwork, leading officials to close the cave to the public in the 1960s. A replica of the cave, Lascaux II, was created to allow visitors to experience the artwork without damaging the original, which is now almost completely closed to humans (a few scientists are allowed into the cave each year to do research). Today, the original cave has been designated a World Heritage Site, and is often referred to as "The Sistine Chapel of Prehistory." Carbon dating has shown that the paintings, which depict animals such as horses, bulls and deer, as well as humans and abstract signs, are between 15,000 and 17,000 years old. 

Kakadu, Australia

Kakadu National Park, in Australia's Northern Territory, contains one of the largest concentrations of rock art in the world. With artwork dating from as many as 20,000 years ago, it also contains one of the longest historical records of any group of people—in this case, the Aboriginal people of northern Australia. Recognized by the U.N. as a World Heritage Site, Kakadu's rock art depicts animals (including some, such as the marsupial tapir, that are now extinct) as well as intricate symbols and human figures. As in Cueva de las Manos, some artwork in Kakadu is stencil-work, including hands created with the same sort of bone pipe used in Argentina. Other paintings were made using brushes of human hair or fibrous strips of tree bark.

To visit the Kakadu art, you'll need to purchase a pass to the entire Kakadu National Park, which costs a little over $20 and is good for two weeks. Because thousands of people visit the park to see the rock art each year, it's important to follow steps to ensure the conservation of the ancient drawings, such as remaining on the marked paths, not entering prohibited areas, and, above all, not touching the art.

Altamira, Spain

Located in the Cantabria region of northern Spain, the Altamira cave was the first place Upper Paleolithic cave art was ever discovered. Upon visiting, Pablo Picasso reportedly said "after Altamira, all is decadence." The art at Altamira, dated at between 14,000 and 20,000 years old, depicts bison, horses, deer, hands and mysterious signs.

As in Lascaux, visitors flocked by the millions to Altamira, which led to concerns that body heat and increased CO2 levels in the cave were damaging the prehistoric art. The cave has been closed and reopened to the public numerous times. In February 2014, it briefly reopened once again—to be granted access, however, potential visitors had to enter a drawing, from which five people were chosen. The selected few were allowed inside the cave in protective suits for a 37-minute guided tour. Scientists are planning to study the effect visitors had on the cave by closely monitoring the temperature and humidity as well as its bacteria and CO2-levels. The data will then be used to help officials decide whether to reopen the cave to the public completely. For now, tourists can visit a replica cave in the nearby Altamira Museum.

Magura Cave, Bulgaria

According to geologists, the Magura Cave in Bulgaria formed 15 million years ago, but the earliest evidence of inhabitants dates to 8,000 B.C. Early denizens left their mark on the cave by painting on its walls with guano, or bat droppings. The paintings date to different periods, from Upper Paleolithic to early Bronze Age, and depict human figures, animals and even a solar calendar—the oldest solar calendar found in Europe to date. On Christmas each year, the cave lends its excellent acoustics to the Vidin philharmonic, which treats visitors to a holiday concert (the cave also hosts a concert each Easter). The cave itself is one of the largest in Bulgaria, and is open year-round to visitors, who flock to see the cave's beautiful stalactites and stalagmites—but the cave of paintings, unfortunately, has been closed off to visitors due to damage.

Cueva de las Manos, Argentina

Cueva de las Manos, or Cave of Hands, features art made by hunter-gatherer communities thought to have lived in the area between 13,000 and 9,500 years ago. Located over 100 miles from the nearest town, the cave's isolation helped preserve its prehistoric art. The famous handprints were stenciled using a bone pipe, a hollowed piece of bird bone that prehistoric artists would blow inside to spray paint. Many of the hands are left hands, suggesting that the artists were right-handed, or at least used their right hand for painting. Though the hands lend the cave its name, they aren't the only thing that the people who lived in the area painted: symbols, hunting scenes and animals can also be found on the walls of the cave. Despite its remote location, Cueva de las Manos remains open to tourists willing to make the trek, though interested visitors are encouraged to book a tour through an operator who can safely lead them along the miles of winding dirt roads and canyons.

Laas Geel, Somalia

In 2002, a team of archeologists discovered ancient cave paintings in Laas Geel, an area of wilderness in northern Somalia. Technically, the cave complex is located in Somaliland, an area that declared independence from Somalia in 1991 but is not internationally recognized as its own nation by either the African Union or United Nations. Still, the artwork predates any modern conflict, representing the creative ideas of people who lived in the area some 5,000 years ago. The artwork, which depicts wild animals, herders and cows, recalls a time when the now-desert region was a lush, fertile land capable of supporting herds of animals. Because Somalia hasn't signed the Unesco World Heritage Treaty, however, the ancient art can't be added to the Unesco World Heritage List, and therefore isn't eligible for any kind of U.N. protection. The cave paintings in Laas Geel are open to visitors, but for years the U.S. State Department has issued a travel warning for Somalia, lessening the likelihood that these cave paintings will be seen by American visitors.

Chauvet, France

Discovered in 1994, the Cave of Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc, in southern France, contains some of the oldest and best-preserved prehistoric art in the world, dating as far back as 32,000 years. There are two main sections of the cave, each of which was used in a particular way by artists. The first area of the cave features drawings and engravings done in red, while a second section features drawings primarily done in black. Unlike other examples of prehistoric art, which often depict hunting scenes or animals that were hunted, the animals featured in the Cave of Chauvet (including lions, mammoths and rhinoceroses) likely weren't pursued by hunters of the time. The cave also features a 22-foot long panel of horses.

The cave has been sealed to the public since its discovery in 1994, but at the end of 2014, a replica site will open so that visitors can experience the wonder of the cave's ancient art without worrying about disrupting the delicate drawings. Once the project is completed, it will be the largest replica of a prehistoric site in Europe, and is expected to attract between 300,000 and 400,000 visitors each year.

Nine Mile Canyon, Utah, USA

Nine Mile Canyon, which is actually a 40-mile-long stretch of canyon in Utah, is sometimes referred to as "the world's longest art gallery." 1,000 years ago, the Fremont Indians called the canyon home, and they left their mark by creating rock art on the canyon walls. Their most famous work, the Hunter Panel, pictured above, depicts the Fremont Indians hunting sheep with bow and arrow. It's estimated that there are over 1,000 rock art sites in Nine Mile Canyon, with some 10,000 individual images. Much of the art is in the form of a petroglyph, which isn't painted on the rock surface, but carved into the rock itself (there are examples of painted drawings in the canyon as well). Though the canyon itself is a combination of public and private land, the 78-mile Nine Mile Canyon Back Country Byway runs along the length of Nine Mile Canyon and is completely open to the public. The Bureau of Land Management once limited the number of vehicles allowed on the unpaved road, but today there is no such regulation.