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Mysteries of Prehistoric Rock Art Probed

Ancient people the world over illustrated rock walls with paintings or carvings evocative of their environment and belief systems. But even as we begin to understand more about the rock artists and the images they left us, new questions about their eternal messages are being raised. Tarascon-sur-Ariège, France–On the eve of the 70th anniversary of the...

Ancient people the world over illustrated rock walls with paintings or carvings evocative of their environment and belief systems. But even as we begin to understand more about the rock artists and the images they left us, new questions about their eternal messages are being raised.

Tarascon-sur-Ariège, France–On the eve of the 70th anniversary of the discovery of the cave paintings in Lascaux, France, experts from around the world are gathered this week at the Park of Prehistory in the Pyrenees to discuss the beautiful and enigmatic remnants of the world of prehistoric art.

Orchestrated by the International Federation of Rock Art Organizations (IFRAO), the conference pulls together representatives from the group’s 49 member organizations, scholars, journalists, and enthusiasts from around the world.

The goal is to spread knowledge from each region to all the others and to help develop a new understanding of prehistoric art as a whole.

As event host and award-winning author and scholar Jean Clottes said, this gathering is an “occasion to learn–which is the best thing we can do as researchers.” He quickly added that it’s also to have fun and get to know each other, and throughout the day, learning and camaraderie have gone hand in hand, with off-handed stories inspiring fascinating side-notes (and vice-versa) everywhere you turn.

The entrance to the park, with the banner for the conference and participants gathering in the morning. (Photo by Andrew Howley)

The conference is taking place in one of the richest regions of paleolithic cave art in Europe, but the scope of research is much larger.

Presenters from every continent besides Antarctica have come to discuss the art of their respective regions, and to help synthesize a new understanding of what was truly a worldwide tradition for tens of thousands of years.

For all of the fascinating regional differences, the inescapable fact is that humans, wherever they lived, made marks on the rocks nearby, and those images have made marks on humans ever since.

A painting depicts prehistoric rock artists painting the Lascaux Cave. (National Geographic illustration by Jack Unruh)

Much like with Stonehenge, the greatest impact prehistoric art tends to have is one of inspiring a sense of mystery. The paintings and carvings are seen as impressive and interesting, but not something we can ever know much about.

That sense of eternal mystery is part of what makes it appealing. But scratch the surface, and there are amazing new answers being uncovered, and perhaps more compellingly, new questions being raised.

Here at the Park of Prehistory, these questions and answers seem to be revolving around three main points.

Worldwide Search for Sites

The first, mentioned above, is the universality of this art form among cultures. Upon the discovery of the caves in France a century ago, little was known or spoken about rock art. The academic interest in Europe has sparked a worldwide search for such sites though, and for increased understanding of sites that have been known locally from the earliest times.

Rich troves of paintings and carvings are now being studied in India, the Amazon, Scandinavia, Africa, and throughout Asia. As knowledge of each example has spread, our understanding of all of them has grown.

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A Fremont petroglyph depicting bowmen hunting bighorn sheep, Cottonwood Canyon, Utah. (National Geographic stock photo by James P. Blair)

Women and Children Lent a Hand

The second is the new recognition of the universality of who created the art within cultures. For a long time in the West, it was assumed that cave art was made by cave men, and that women simply did the proverbial gathering work of a hunter-gatherer society.

Recent research revealed that many rock art handprints are likely to be female however, making the idea of exclusively male art creation highly unlikely .(See related: PICTURES: Prehistoric European Cave Artists Were Female).

Perhaps even more interesting and endearing however, is the growing evidence of children being present in the caves and even having a hand (literally) in the creation process, as Leslie van Gelder of Walden University, New Zealand mentioned today.

Ancient Native Americans made these handprints on the wall of Canyon del Muerto, Arizona. (National Geographic stock photo by Bruce Dale)

Relationship Between Humans and Animals

Finally, many of the attempts to understand the meaning of these images of animals made by humans come down to understanding the distinction (or lack of one) between humans and animals.

As we’ve found that animals possess many of the traits we used to think were exclusively human such as communication, self-recognition, and tool-making, certain lines are being blurred that not too long ago may not have even existed at all.

Finnish ethnographer Juha Pentikäinen related the concept among shamans in Siberia that bears are not just human-like, but that they actually are human. Or as Dario Seglie, director of the Italian Centro Studi e Museo d’Arte Preistorica said, we may well need to define “human” and “animal” differently than we generally do.

Understanding how people of today, and people of long ago have seen this relationship may help us understand what it is that inspired the creation of this art, and what it is that makes it so compelling to this day.

Throughout this week, dozens of experts will be tackling these questions. Follow along each day as we bring you some of the answers they come to, and the new questions that arise in the process.

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Petroglyphs on Easter Island, Polynesia, preserve rituals of vanished bird-man cult. (National Geographic stock photo by Thomas J. Abercrombie)

More Blog Posts in This Series

Mysteries of Prehistoric Rock Art Probed

Finding Pictures and Meaning in Rock Art

Walking Into the Stone Age

Cracking the Code in the Rocks

Rock Spirits at the Portals to Afterlife

70th Anniversary of the Discovery of Lascaux

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Andrew Howley
Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley. Learn more at