Question of the Week

Was pre-historic cave art only done in caves or is that the only place untouched enough for them to be preserved?

Sat, 20th Oct 2012

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George Cotcher-Riley asked:


Was pre-historic cave art only done in caves or is that the only place untouched enough for them to be preserved?

It just seems odd caves would be the only place they would do it.

I really enjoy all the podcasts.

Thanks , George.


Diana - I’m Diana O’Carroll and I’m a PhD research student and Naked Scientist.

I think that the sort of art found in caves was almost certainly done out in the open. Unfortunately we can’t prove this, but we can look at how cave art does survive and what other things humans were up to at the time.

The kind of art the questioner is talking about tended to appear around the Upper Palaeolithic era in Europe (which was from about 50-60,000 years ago). And these include drawings of bison or people, dots and silhouettes of hands and even a few seemingly random scribbles, with some of the more famous examples found at places like El Castillo or Chauvet or Lascaux.

The problem with paintings is that often they can be washed away by rain, or they can be blown away by wind carrying tiny particles which abrade the surface of the rock.

Hannah - So caves provide protection from the outside elements. Other than wind and rain, are there other ways caves protect prehistoric artwork?

Diana - As for caves, providing the rocks they’re made of aren’t too Stone Age Cave Art - Panel of Handsacidic, they’re great areas for preserving both  organic and inorganic organic materials – so that includes the charcoal-based outlines and the pigments, which were usually made of earth minerals like red or yellow ochre. Caves tend to stay at the same temperature, they have constant humidity and sometimes contain limited amounts of oxygen – all of which creates a fairly stable environment in which to preserve whatever people have left behind. More importantly, caves tend to fill up or become blocked, meaning that people can't get inside them and destroy the art. My favourite example is the Grotte Cosquer, which is so tricky to access that several divers died trying to navigate its underwater entrance - but its remoteness kept the paintings safe for thousands of years.

Hannah - That was Diana O’Carroll from Cambridge with her favourite prehistoric artwork in Marseille, France.

But not all prehistoric art is restricted to caves. Evan AU, Clifford K and Cifrum  add on the forum, alongside Diana, that stone carving and sculpture are another form of human art. And at Ayers rock in Australia petroglyphs exist , shallow carvings of abstract lines or animals and strange, unidentifiable creatures. These are thought to be around 40, 000 years old and found across other parts of Australia, Africa, Asia, the Americas as well as Europe, somehow managing to survive out in the open.



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Caves are rather non-portable.

There are traces of paint on some of the so-called "Venus" statuettes:

Sculpture is another form of human art, as seen in these statuettes. evan_au, Tue, 16th Oct 2012

Plus caves tend to last longer than many other types of media for art, other than stone carving which can be difficult to do.  CliffordK, Tue, 16th Oct 2012

At Uluru (ayes rock) a natural rock formation was painted in prehistoric times to resemble a snake as well as the depiction of animals in nearby caves. syhprum, Wed, 17th Oct 2012

Well if it's not in a cave is it cave art? I've seen prehistoric art not in caves, but it's very rare as it needs to be protected from weathering and other forms of destruction, such as vandalism.

Apollo astronauts left marks on the moon, including one man's daughter's initials. Assuming these places are not revisited by people these marks will last millions of years. Much longer than even the most durable art on Earth. krool1969, Wed, 24th Oct 2012

There is a lot of prehistoric art around in Australia, almost none of it in caves, though much is in rock shelters.

In much of Australia it was part of the tribal culture/religion in many places to maintain the old rock art, so the actual surface coating/carving might be quite recent, though the design dates from many millennia ago.

Some of the artwork is carved in stone, some uses ochres or campfire soot. damocles, Fri, 26th Oct 2012

In Colorado, USA, there are hundreds if not thousands of petroglyphs that are not in caves. These petroglyphs are 200 to 14,000 years old and were done by native American Indians. Boogie, Tue, 30th Oct 2012

I'm sure caves are just the only places that the art survived.  Surely they practiced on a rock outside first before going in.  Some of the cave art is too impeccable to be the artists first stab at it.  Adam Yax, Mon, 5th Nov 2012

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