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20 of the oldest cave paintings in the world

by Linh Nguyen

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As long as civilizations have existed, people have made art. Fortunately, we are still able to admire and study some of these marvellous paintings that span entire cave walls across the world. Many have been preserved for thousands of years, giving us a rare glimpse into history.

Magura Cave, Bulgaria

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Located in northwestern Bulgaria, the Magura Cave began to take shape 15 million years ago. It consists of a main gallery and three side branches, totalling approximately 2,500 metres (8,200 feet) in length. The paintings of stars, animals, tools, plants, and people hunting and dancing span many different eras.

Cueva de las Manos, Argentina

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The “Cave of the Hands” is a unique work of cave art, dating from between 13,000 to 9,500 years ago. It consists of stencilled outlines of human hands but also features animals and hunting scenes, all executed in natural mineral pigments.

Laas Geel, Somalia

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First discovered in 2002 by a French team, Laas Geel is a series of Ethiopian-Arabic-style paintings distributed across 20 rock panels, the largest being 10 metres (33 feet) in length. These colourful depictions mostly show cows and humans in standardized shapes. They date back three to four millennia and are among the oldest pieces of evidence of cattle domestication in the Horn of Africa!

Bhimbetka, India

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The Rock Shelters of Bhimbetka, located in the foothills of the Vindhyan Mountains, feature paintings that date from 30,000 years back right up to the Medieval period. They largely depict hunter and gatherer economies consistent with the traditional villages in the area.

Serra da Capivara, Brazil

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Many of the cave paintings in Serra da Capivara date back over 25,000 years, which make them an important archaeological site and an incredible relic of human communities in South America. Evidence suggests that the first people there settled 50,000 years ago.

Lascaux Paintings, France

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The famous Lascaux paintings, dating back 15,000 to 17,000 years from the Upper Paleolithic period, were discovered in 1940. Four teenagers stumbled upon the cave while chasing their dog down a narrow entrance. The walls feature around 600 painted and drawn animals and symbols, as well as nearly 1,500 engravings.

Altamira Cave, Spain

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The spectacular art in Altamira Cave was created over a 20,000-year span, starting about 36,000 years ago. Highlights include a two-metre (6.5-foot) hind, polychrome bison, and a ceiling of red horses painted from ochre.

Ubirr at Kakadu, Australia

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The beautiful paintings of Ubirr at Kakadu National Park depict the relationships between humans and their environment. The earliest art, including of the now-extinct thylacine (Tasmanian tiger) is believed to be from 2,000 to 3,000 years ago. Newer paintings of Europeans date closer to the 1880s.

Coliboaia Cave, Romania

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The Coliboaia Cave in the Bihor mountains is a sight to behold on its own. It also contains charcoal drawings and prehistoric engravings, which have been radiocarbon-dated to at least 30,000 BCE. No equivalent examples of Stone Age art in Europe have been discovered to date.

Twyfelfontein, Namibia

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Twyfelfontein has one of the largest concentrations of petroglyphs in Africa. Also known as /Ui-//aes, this historic site features well-preserved art of rhinoceroses, elephants, ostriches, and giraffes in red ochre. The engravings date back to the Late Stone Age, at least over 2,000 years ago.

Wat Khao Chan Ngam, Thailand

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The paintings of Wat Khao Chan Ngam feature scenes of hunting, with figures of people, animals, and attire. Drawn in coarse red paint over a sandstone cliff, they are believed to have been drawn by an agrarian community in the area 3,000 to 4,000 years ago.

Tassili n’Ajjer, Algeria

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More than 15,000 paintings and engravings span the important historical site of Tassili n’Ajjer. They record climatic changes, animal migrations, and human life as it evolved on the edge of the Sahara from 6,000 BCE to the first centuries of our present day.

San Borjitas, Mexico

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The painted cave of San Borjitas dates back 7,500 years. The ceiling mostly depicts human figures pierced by arrows to indicate a great battle. Many faceless humanoids are shown with “basket masks,” which have led to theories about alien presence.

Cederberg, South Africa

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The Cederberg paintings range from 8,000 years to 100 or 200 years old. They commonly depict animal scenes with symbolic religious meanings. Humans are also shown in procession, hunting, or gathering food. The art is attributed to the San people.

Newspaper Rock, United States

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Though known as Newspaper Rock, this archaeological site features over 650 petroglyphs that cover a group of rock-faces within a small area. Created by the ancestral Puebloan people between 650 and 2,000 years ago, they mark territory boundaries, migratory routes, family and clan symbols, and spiritual meanings.

Chauvet Cave, France

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These charcoal and red ochre paintings of woolly rhinos, mammoths, and other mammals of the Pleistocene era, about 10,000 years ago, are depicted in the beautiful Chauvet Cave. Named for its primary discoverer, it features mostly art that dates back 36,000 years.

Lubang Jeriji Saléh, Indonesia

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The oldest painting in Lubang Jeriji Saléh, an important site of ancient cave art, is a large wild cattle-like beast dated at approximately 40,000 years old, though perhaps drawn up to 51,800 years ago. The beast’s relatives are still thought to roam local forests today.

Tadrart Acacus, Libya

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The rocky massif of Tadrart Acacus contains thousands of cave paintings in varying styles across millennia, dating from 12,000 BCE to 100 CE. They depict the evolution of flora and fauna and reflect changes of cultures and populations in the Saharan region.

Adamgarh Rock Shelter Paintings, India

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Of the 18 rock shelters of Adamgarh, 11 still have visible paintings while the rest have faded due to time and vandalism. Shelter number 10 is particularly noteworthy for its superimposition of paintings from different time periods, dating back to the Upper Paleolithic era (40,000 years ago). The art mainly consists of simple human and animal figures and outlines.

Sulawesi, Indonesia

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Some of the oldest cave paintings ever discovered lie in Indonesia’s Sulawesi cave. Though the cave is home to abundant art, the famous Sulawesi warty pig done in red ochre pigment was discovered only recently. It is thought to be the oldest cave painting in the world, dating back 45,500 years.

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