National Geographic Society Newsroom

Cracking the Code in the Rocks

On the fourth day of the International Federation of Rock Art Organizations (IFRAO) conference, National Geographic Digital Media’s Andrew Howley learns from experts how ancient wall paintings can be deciphered to tell something about the Stone Age artists who made them. Tarascon-sur-Ariège, France–The iconic images of bison, deer, and mammoths are what draw many people...

On the fourth day of the International Federation of Rock Art Organizations (IFRAO) conference, National Geographic Digital Media’s Andrew Howley learns from experts how ancient wall paintings can be deciphered to tell something about the Stone Age artists who made them.

Tarascon-sur-Ariège, France–The iconic images of bison, deer, and mammoths are what draw many people to prehistoric art. The dots, stripes, squiggles, and other marks are generally skipped over, and ignored at least for the time being because they seem too difficult to make any sense of.

Amazingly, people around the world are changing that, and in several presentations Thursday at the 2010 IFRAO conference on Pleistocene Art of the World, they proved their point.

Paleolithic wall-reliefs at Roc-aux-Sorciers. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

First came color. In the cave of the Roc-aux-Sorciers in France, carvings of horses and other animals stand on the walls in high relief. Their shapes are immediately recognizable. Less clear at first is the fact that there is color on these carvings, or any indication of what the coloring may mean. Much of it has been worn away over time, but enough patches remain that a study was able to determine whether there was any rhyme or reason to its use.

Remarkably, from just those few examples, researchers found that red was consistently used for backgrounds and body fills, while black was used for hooves and other dark detailing.

In the questions period, people began to wonder about the meaning of the use of color here and on other prehistoric artifacts. When debate began to arise over whether it was intentional or not, or whether it was supposed to be protective in some way or simply decorative, conference leader Jean Clottes took the mic. He told a story of being adopted as a Tuareg, and putting on the “blue veil of the desert.”

The veil and its dyes have social and cultural significance, are pleasing to look at, help protect against the desert sun, and ended up coloring his face for two or three days. So what was the meaning or purpose of the color? Echoing a recurring theme this week, all of it was mixed, he said. There are many meanings, all at the same time.

Photo of Tuareg man in Algeria (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Next to be tackled was the dizzying overlaying of figures and abstract shapes that appear in many places.

Looking specifically at the cave of Rouffignac in France, Jannu Igarashi showed that if you look closely, these panels can begin to make sense. Examining an engraving of two mammoths overlayed with two straight lines and several parallel wavy lines, she was able to tell the order in which the different parts were engraved, and discover that parts of the mammoths, but not all parts, went down before parts of the signs, showing that it was all created at the same time.

Additionally, she discovered that the signs appeared in the same positions on other mammoths in the cave, but not without the mammoths.

So while the meaning of the lines has yet to be deciphered, it is at least known that they are an important part of the mammoth image, and not simply scribbles added at some other time.

Finger flutings in Rouffignac cave. (Photo by Sharpe & Van Gelder via Wikimedia Creative Commons)

Also in Rouffignac, Leslie van Gelder cracked a seemingly impossible code, untangling countless parallel and crossing lines known as “finger flutings” made in soft clay. Through data sets and her own experimentation with school children and adults in her area, she built up a catalogue of the age and sex of individuals and the size and shape of flutings that their hands made. The flutings are generally made with the three middle fingers of either hand, and the width of the mark made by any given person is fairly consistent.

Looking at the walls of the cave, van Gelder discerned seven sets of flutings that had distinct finger widths. Cross-referenced with the data from the experiments, she was able to identify six of them with a good deal of certainty.

So what once looked like a giant mess of spaghetti now began to tell a story. There was most likely an infant under two years, a female child, a female youth, an adult male, and an adult female. The children’s marks extended deepest into the cave, often accompanied by the adult male, with those of the middle child being the most prolific and in the most diverse settings. Often, her lines appear at the height expected from being perched on the shoulders of an adult, but they also appear close to the ground and in hard-to-reach places. The adult male also often made deep marks in the ceiling, while the adult female’s marks are more sparse, but based on the amount of clay that accumulated at the end of each mark, hers were made with the most aggressive speed.

Hearing this described was almost like being in a cave. That same feeling of connection with the people who made these designs was very strong, and the feeling of confusion first felt, cleared away to reveal a glimpse of a family living lives not so different from ours, performing an activity together.

Lions painted in the Chauvet Cave (via Wikimedia Commons)

Finally, a paper by John Clegg examined the two lion images in Chauvet cave that stand out most from the others to modern western eyes. (Some would say they’re simply not drawn as well, but the conference’s politely outspoken philosopher Livio Dobrez would be quick to call them out for making a value judgement on a work from a completely unknown culture. ) There are many lions portrayed in Chauvet and most match our modern sense of a “really nice drawing of a lion.”

Lions on the Prowl

These two however, have strangely long lips or possibly tongues, and lack the level of detail present in the nose and muzzle of the others. Clegg pointed out that it is probably not that the painters couldn’t draw them the same, but that they were specifically trying to draw something other than the usual face. His theory is that these two lions are on the prowl, with the relaxed open mouths and lolling tongues typical of that behavior. Careful, close-up observation of lions in such a mood however is difficult to achieve and then live to talk about. (Unless your last name is Joubert: See Lion Photos).

Comparing this to all the images of lions painted, carved, or tiled in mosaic, from ancient times until the advent of photography, the point seems well made. Before photos captured those fleeting images of animals in a dangerous state, artists seemed unable to match the physical appearance, even when their images did attain a convincing portrayal of the energy and emotion of the scene.

So between the enigmatic color use, the vertigo-inducing finger fluting, and the perplexing variety in the appearance of different figures in the same panel of a cave, three seemingly eternal mysteries began to be decoded today, and the tools used were passed on to many others in the field.

The rock art congress was adjourned, and the next day’s presenters began their own final preparations.

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


About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

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