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La Roche-Cotard Engravings

Neanderthal Finger-Flutings
Loire Valley, France. 55,000 BC

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Original triangular panel of finger-fluting at La Roche-Cotard, featuring two mammoths
Fig 1. Triangular panel of finger-drawn engravings at La Roche-Cotard, Loire, Valley, France. Image by Bernie Taylor. (CC BY 4.0)
Illustration by Bernie Taylor of mammoths on Triangular Panel, based on enhanced imagery of original
Fig 2. Illustration of a female woolly mammoth nudging a juvenile mammoth forward, as engraved on the Triangular Panel. Graphic by Bernie Taylor. (CC BY 4.0)

Oldest Parietal Engravings

Researchers have discovered what may be the world's oldest parietal rock engravings at La Roche-Cotard cave in the Loire region of central France.

According to a 2023 study in Plos One, hundreds of finger-flutings, consisting of stripes, dots and wavy lines, were drawn on the longest and smoothest wall of the shelter.

What's more, because Roche-Cotard cave was sealed off around 55,000 BC, its parietal art predates the earliest known presence of modern humans (Cro-Magnons) in the region by at least one thousand years.

This strongly suggests that we're looking at art created by Neanderthals, which, if true, makes it the world's oldest Neanderthal engravings. In fact, they may be the world's oldest wall engravings, period.

Location

La Roche-Cotard is located on a wooded hillside on the northern bank of the Loire valley, just east of the town of Langeais and west of Cinq-Mars-la-Pile.

Discovery and Excavation

The cave was first revealed in 1846 when quarrying work during construction of a railway line uncovered the hitherto buried entrance.

But it wasn't until 1912 that the interior of the site was examined by the landowner François d'Achon. Even then, only limited excavations were undertaken, which turned up no more than a collection of animal bones and a series of Mousterian stone tools, used exclusively by Neanderthals.

It wasn't until more extensive excavations were conducted in the 1970s, and the late 2000s, that the full significance of the cave was revealed.

The cave consists of a narrow passageway about 10 metres in length followed by three wider chambers.

In total it extends for no more than 40 metres.

The Neanderthal occupants lived in the first chamber, and just outside the cave entrance where the Mousterian levels were first discovered in the 1970s.

The engravings were found in the third and most remote chamber, whose walls consist of crumbly limestone, a material known as tuffeau, composed of fine quartz and ancient marine shell fragments.

The Engravings

According to the Plos One study, most of the finger-drawn engravings - known as finger-flutings - are clustered into eight separate panels.

Beginning in 2016, researchers analyzed these digital tracings and compared them with other petroglyphs of the period.

They also distinguished marks made by cave bears, and by more modern visitors after 1912.

This analysis work established that the engraved panels were created in a structured and deliberate fashion.

The engravings consist of numerous shapes, such as parallel stripes, sinuous lines, curved lines that form circular or fan-shaped patterns, as well as numerous dots and dashes.

The Plos One researchers do not offer any further interpretation of these abstract markings. Indeed, lead researcher Jean-Claude Marquet admits "we'll never know what they mean."

Co-author Eric Robert agrees. "These images are not for us.. and we do not have the keys to understand their meaning."

Engravings Viewed with Enhanced Software

The Roche-Cotard finger flutings have been analyzed by independent scholar Bernie Taylor, using Dstretch software, a tool that helps to enhance imagery which may be invisible to the naked eye.

In a presentation to the San Diego Rock Art Association 2023 symposium, entitled Neanderthal Art? A closer look at La Roche-Cotard, Taylor presents the engravings as a series of complex figurative compositions, featuring a range of animals, including mammoths, bears, deer, felines and other creatures.

He produces a number of explanatory line drawings to illustrate his conclusions (see Fig 2).

In addition, he notes that one of the compositions - the Panel of the Bears - strongly resembles similar engravings in Las Chimeneas Cave and Las Monedas Cave at Monte Castillo, Spain.

For other soft clay engravings in France, see Baume Latrone Cave (c.35,500 BC).

Dating

All dating at La Roche-Cotard, comes from analysis of thick flood sediments that completely covered the cave entrance, to a depth of more than 9 metres (30 feet).

Optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating methods, show that the cave was effectively sealed from the outside around 55,000 BC.

Since modern humans were first detected in France at Mandrin Cave in 54,000 BC, it suggests the engravings could only have been made by Neanderthals.

This is corroborated by the presence of Mousterian stone tools just outside the cave entrance. Mousterian tools are strongly associated with Neanderthals, and are not known to have been used by modern humans.

At the same time, no trace of any Cro-Magnons has been found at the cave or its surroundings.

What's more, 55,000 BC is a minimum age. After all, the engravings were likely created over a period of time, perhaps extending back to 60,000 BC.

Up to now, the oldest parietal engraving attributed to Neanderthals, was an abstract crosshatch drawing at Gorham’s Cave, Gibraltar, and dated to around 37,000 BC.

Mask of La Roche-Cotard

In 1975, excavations at the entrance to Roche-Cotard uncovered an artifact, resembling a human or animal face, which has become known as the Mask of la Roche-Cotard, or the 'Mousterian Protofigurine.'

According to Jean-Claude Marquet a Michel Lorblanchet, authors of a study published in Antiquity journal in 2003, the 'mask' was recovered from the Mousterian layer just outside the cave.

Consisting of a small piece of flint, its natural face was enhanced by a series of modifications, designed to accentuate its anthropomorphic appearance.

Recent OSL dating tests have dated quartz fragments in the Mousterian layer to about 73,000 BC - up from the previous date of 30,000 BC.

Note that this date has nothing to do with the engravings inside the cave.

Who Created Roche-Cotard's Engravings?

Who were the artists who created Roche-Cotard's amazing cave art? Was it Neanderthals or modern humans?

The study authors have no doubt. They regard La Roche-Cotard as the earliest unambiguous example of Neanderthal cave engravings.

And according to Paleolithic expert Professor Paul Pettitt, who was not involved in the study: "Given that the cave’s archaeology is exclusively indicative of Neanderthals, with no evidence of subsequent Upper Paleolithic occupation... this provides strong indirect, cumulative evidence that Neanderthals produced the finger markings."

Yet questions will surely persist.

For instance, is it likely that Neanderthals were capable of complex figurative compositions (per Bernie Taylor) as early as 55,000-60,000 BC?

If so, since modern humans produced no figurative art until about 45,000 BC, does this mean that modern humans learned their art from Neanderthals?

Until very recently, modern humans were believed to be present in Europe no earlier than 43,000 BC. See Bacho Kiro Cave, for details.

Then in 2022, a study found evidence of Cro-Magnons at Mandrin Cave as early as 54,000 BC.

How soon will it be before we discover modern humans arrived in France even earlier - perhaps in 60,000 BC?

No one disputes that Neanderthals were capable of producing art.

But, as far as we know, all they have produced is an assortment of abstract signs and some rudimentary rock art.

Now, suddenly, Taylor's fascinating analysis of Roche-Cotard's finger-drawn animal compositions, threatens to turn our whole view of Neanderthal creativity on its head.

We live in interesting times.

References

(1) Marquet J-C, Freiesleben TH, Thomsen KJ, Murray AS, Calligaro M, Macaire J-J, Robert E, et al. (2023) 'The earliest unambiguous Neanderthal engravings on cave walls: La Roche-Cotard, Loire Valley, France.' PLoS ONE 18(6): e0286568.
(2) Marquet J-C, Lorblanchet M. 'The Mousterian Protofigurine from La Roche-Cotard (France)'. Antiquity 77, No 298: pp 661-670 (2003).

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