Be it a picture of an animal, a hunter, or a handprint, there’s something pretty magical about coming face to face with some of humanity’s earliest artworks.
Cave paintings (pictographs) and carvings (petroglyphs), some dating back as far as 40,000 years, may at first glance appear primitive, but these ancient works of art point to the beginnings of human creativity, when we started to express ourselves through images. Some of the world’s most well-known prehistoric artworks are tens of thousands of years old, and despite the humans of the era often being thought of as “primitive cavemen,” much of this art shows incredible creativity and skill.
Modern people could be excused for wondering about the purpose of these ancient works of art. Were these ancient people merely expressing themselves artistically? Were they perhaps attempting to make some kind of historic record for future generations? Or perhaps attempting to communicate with other people who may come to use these caves for shelter?
Prehistoric artwork can be found in almost every corner of the globe, from Argentina to Africa, and there are several places around the world where you can go to experience it. Here are just seven of the many places you can visit to feast your eyes on art created by our prehistoric ancestors.
1. Tsodilo Hills
Okavango Panhandle, Botswana
I’m starting my list with my most recent encounter with prehistoric art. Located in northwest Botswana, near the Namibian border, in an area known as the Okavango Panhandle (the main watercourse supplying the famous Okavango Delta), the Tsodilo Hills are a small area of massive rock formations that rise majestically from the ancient sand dunes.
Tsodilo Hills, a world heritage site, has been drawing people here for thousands of years; and they’re just as mesmerizing today. Local people still live in the area, and people still visit Tsodilo to collect water for use in religious ceremonies. Local hunters still perform hunting rituals in sacred sites on the hills. Only a smattering of tourists come to visit this amazing place, to see for themselves the incredibly well-preserved works of art.
I was lucky enough to be staying at nearby Nxamaseri Lodge, a small but perfectly formed lodge, and had the privilege to fly by helicopter to Tsodilo Hills. Taking off from the nearby airstrip early in the morning, we saw wisps of mist rising off the water. The vibrant green papyrus and reeds below us were cut through by channels of indigo water. The closer we flew to Tsodilo, the drier the earth beneath us grew, and then suddenly, beneath us, the hills loomed out of the flat earth; the male, the female, and the child, the names given to the hills beneath us.
The name Tsodilo means “damp earth” in !Kung, the language of one of the local tribes. According to !Kung legend, long ago, while the rocks were still soft and the animals could talk, the Tsodilo Hills were a family consisting of husband, wife, and two children. Following a conflict between husband and wife, the wife left her husband and moved away with both children. The younger child later returned to the father, but the older child remained near the mother — today the “family” is found in the current hill’s positions of male, female, and child.
We spent the bulk of our time with our knowledgeable local guide at the female hill, as this is where the majority of art has been found to date.
The over 4,500 artworks of Tsodilo are predominantly finger paintings of animals, humans, and geometric designs which were used for specific traditional healing rituals by medicine men. Some of the animals were painted because they embodied particular powers, like that of the snake, painted here because of their importance in rain-making rituals. The artworks are between 10,000 and 20,000 years old.
2. Chauvet Cave
Discovered in 1994, Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave, a World Heritage site in the south of France, is considered one of the most significant prehistoric art sites in the world. Chauvet measures more than 430 feet long and dates back to at least 36,000 to 30,000 years ago.
More than 1,000 images, including the famous Horse Panel and the Panel of Lions, have been recorded since the cave’s discovery, depicting at least 13 different species, including some that are rarely or never found in other ice age paintings. Chauvet also features drawings of other, more familiar animal species, including mammoths, aurochs (extinct European wild ox), horses, rhinoceroses, red bears, and deer.
Unusually, the walls of the cave also feature many predatory animals, including lions, leopards, bears, and hyenas. There are two main sections of the cave, each of which was used in a different way by artists: The first area of the cave features drawings and engravings done in red, while a second section features drawings primarily done in black. The cave also features a 22-foot-long panel of horses.
To preserve the cave from the sort of damage that has happened at other cave art sites, Chauvet has never been open to the public and is under surveillance 24 hours a day. Only a handful of people, predominantly archaeologists and speleologists (cave scientists), are allowed to enter. Fortunately in 2015, a replica was opened a few miles away. The replica is designed to give you a feeling of both the artwork and the entire cave experience.
Pro Tip: If you can’t make the trip to see the cave replica and surrounds in person, make sure to see Werner Herzog’s 2010 3D documentary film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams.
3. Altamira Cave
The autonomous region of Cantabria in northern Spain was the first place where Upper Paleolithic cave art was discovered, and the area is home to an incredible array of prehistoric artworks, dating to between 14,000 and 20,000 years ago. Probably the most famous of the region’s caves is Altamira, a UNESCO World Heritage site situated near the historic city of Santillana del Mar in Northern Spain. It depicts bison, horses, deer, hands, and several mysterious signs.
The cave, which had been sealed by a rockfall, fortunately preserving the paintings, was first discovered in 1868 by Modesto Peres, a local hunter searching for his dog. But it was only in 1879 that the cave paintings themselves were spotted by Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, a local nobleman and amateur archaeologist, when excavating the cave floor for artifacts.
It took decades to convince skeptics that these images were from prehistoric times, as many believed ancient humans were not sophisticated enough to make such paintings. It was not until 1902 that the paintings were finally acknowledged as genuine.
Altamira Cave, which is nearly 1,000 feet long with multiple chambers, contains charcoal and ochre images of Paleolithic horses, bison, and handprints, and they are among the best-preserved cave paintings in the world. Scientists are still uncertain who painted them, but think the paintings were created over 20,000 years ago, with some researchers suggesting that the oldest images were made by Neanderthals.
Visitors initially flocked in their thousands to the caves, leading to concerns that body heat and increased carbon dioxide levels would damage the prehistoric art. Consequently, the cave has been opened and closed to the public numerous times.
In February 2014, it reopened once again, with access being gained through a lottery system, from which five people were chosen. These select few were allowed inside the cave, in biohazard suits, for a 37-minute guided tour. Currently, the cave is closed due to COVID restrictions, but visitors do have the option to visit Altamira Museum near Santillana del Mar.
Pro Tip: El Castillo, located about 15 miles from the Altamira Cave, is the site for some of the world’s oldest known prehistoric art, including dozens of red handprints, several made by Ice Age women and children. El Castillo is estimated to be more than 40,800 years old and holds more than 150 paintings, including the stenciled hands, as well as various depictions of animals. Surprisingly it is still possible to visit the caves at El Castillo. Reservations are strongly recommended.
4. Kakadu National Park
Northern Territory, Australia
Continuously inhabited for 50,000 years, Kakadu National Park in Australia’s Northern Territory contains one of the largest concentrations of rock art in the world. With artwork dating from as far back as 20,000 years ago, it also contains one of the longest historical records of any group of people; in this case, the Aboriginal people of northern Australia.
Approximately 5,000 art sites have been discovered in Kakadu along the escarpment and on rock outliers. The most famous of these are Ubirr and Nourlangie (Burrungkuy), located in the northeast of the park, where ancient galleries illustrate the spiritual beliefs of the Bininj people, their ways of life as hunters and gatherers, and the wildlife that existed around them, some of which, like the Tasmanian tiger and marsupial tapir, are now extinct. The paintings also depict events, such as the Aboriginal people’s first contact with Europeans, as well as ceremonies and creation myths.
The site at Ubirr has some of the finest examples of “X-ray art” in the world, where artists not only painted the outside, but also the bones and internal organs of the animals. The paintings are estimated to range in age from 20,000 years to the recent present, though most of the paintings are less than 1,500 years old. Meanwhile, the Anbangbang Gallery at Nourlangie (Burrungkuy), has creation stories about Namarrgon, the sacred Lightning Man.
Pro Tip: You can visit the rock art sites (or gunbim, as they are referred to by the Aboriginal people of the region) on a tour with Kakadu Tours and Travel.
5. Cueva De Las Manos (Cave Of The Hands)
Named after the stenciled hand images created by indigenous people and tucked into an isolated river valley, Cueva de las Manos is arguably home to the most famous prehistoric cave paintings in South America.
Located in the southern Argentine province of Santa Cruz, Cueva de las Manos was discovered in 1941 and aside from the handprints, also contains depictions of hunting scenes, local animals like the guanaco, puma, and rhea (a flightless bird), as well as human figures and abstract designs. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999, the cave’s still-vibrant prehistoric artworks, in shades of black, ochre, and red, are estimated to be between 9,500 and 13,000 years old.
Located over 100 miles from the nearest town, Cueva de las Manos is hard to get to but well worth the trip, and the cave’s isolation has helped preserve its prehistoric art.
Pro Tip: If you are keen to make the trek to the cave, it’s advisable to book through a local operator who can safely lead you along the miles of winding dirt roads and canyons. Tangol Tours offers a day trip which includes a 2.5hr moderate level trek to Cueva de las Manos
6. Lascaux Caves
From Rouffignac Cave (known as “Cave of a Hundred Mammoths”) to the much more famous Lascaux Caves (often called the “prehistoric Sistine Chapel”), the Dordogne region of southwestern France is dotted with 25 UNESCO-protected ancient art caves.
Discovered by four teenagers and a dog in 1940 during the Nazi occupation of France, Lascaux is a complex of caves, featuring more than 600 paintings and nearly 1,500 engravings dating back to between 15,000 and 17,000 years ago. They may not be the oldest examples of art in the world, but they are considered among the most stunning and depict large animals, such as bulls and horses, which thrived in this part of Europe during the Paleolithic era.
Near the town of Montignac, the Lascaux Caves complex is an easy site to visit. Opened to the public shortly after World War II, Lascaux Cave experienced a number of environmental problems attributed to visitors and subsequently closed in 1963.
Whilst you can no longer visit the caves, a team of researchers and experts in 1983 crafted a partial replica, Lascaux IV, just a short walk away, and here you can virtually see the famous Hall of Bulls, Upside Down Horse, and all the cave’s major highlights.
7. Drakensberg Mountains
In the foothills of the Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa’s Kamberg Nature Reserve is Game Pass shelter, home to the largest collection of rock art in sub-Saharan Africa. The shallow caves and rock overhangs of Game Pass shelter feature panels of art referred to as the Rosetta Stone of South African rock art because they helped researchers crack the code of the symbolism and religious metaphors in this incredible collection of rock art.
The oldest paintings date back about 2,400 years and are the work of the San people, who were eventually pushed out of the area by other tribes and by European colonizers. But the San left their mark behind, with their elaborate red, yellow, black, and white painted animals, human figures, and mysterious objects and patterns.
Many of the 40,000-plus images are combined animal and human shapes. Humans hunt and walk with digging sticks and sacks on their backs, and hunters, wrapped in skin cloaks, chase eland (large antelopes).
Pro Tip: You can take a 3-hour, moderately difficult guided walk at 8:30 a.m., 11 a.m., or 1:30 p.m. from the Kamberg Rock Art Center. Alternatively, visit the interpretive center to view and watch a 20-minute documentary if you’re short on time or not up for the trek.
While many travelers plan their vacations around museums and art galleries, the sites of prehistoric art have a tendency to get a little overlooked. I know I have barely scratched the surface here with my list of amazing places to see prehistoric art around the world.
There are so many more to visit, including the Serra da Capivara in Brazil, home to the largest and oldest concentration of prehistoric paintings in the Americas; The Cave of Swimmers in Egypt; Bhimbetka in India; Laas Geel in Somaliland; Magura Cave in Bulgaria; and, perhaps a little closer to home for some of you, Nine Mile Canyon in Utah. Each of these destinations is spectacular in its own right, and each deserves a visit.
I hope I have inspired you to add some of them to your travels. For more on ancient art in the U.S., consider