The oldest cave wall engravings in France or even in Europe identified in la Roche-Cotard

Neanderthal cave wall engravings, traced using fingers, have been dated at over 57,000 years old, and could be up to around 75,000 years old. These markings make La Roche-Cotard the oldest-known cave decorated with wall engravings to date in France, and perhaps even in Europe. The Geosciences laboratory of Rennes helped to determine the dating. (Published in PLOS ONE, 21 June 2023).
The researchers discuss the engravings and the sampling opportunities - Image:  Kristina Jørkov Thomsen - CC-BY-SA 4.0

A cave already mapped in 1912

First discovered in 1846, the cave of La Roche-Cotard remained inaccessible until 1912, when the landowner of the site unblocked the entrance, which he presented in a memo in 1913, illustrated with photos and a map. In 1976, Jean-Claude Marquet, then working at the University of Dijon, conducted excavation work. But it was not until 2008 that real research work began on this cave, by means of a multidisciplinary project, with the participation of Guillaume Guérin, CNRS researcher working at the Geosciences laboratory of Rennes (CNRS/University of Rennes - OSUR). It was this work that led to the complete discovery and contextualisation of the engravings, found on a tuff (soft stone) wall about 12 metres (39 feet) long, with some of the upper part covered with a thin layer of alteration.
These markings were mainly produced by fingers, either by simple contact on the altered tuff’s surface, or by their movement. They represent non-figurative motifs, some of which are rather simple, reflecting the impact of fingers enclosing a large fossil embedded in the rock or forming long marks covering a vast surface, while some are more elaborate.

Panel with dots. (simple motifs no. 1: impact of fingers) Panel with dots. (simple motifs no. 1: impact of fingers) © Y. Egels, A. N’Guyen, Readings: O. Spaey, G. Alain

A two-step dating process

An experimental study and precise readings based on the most effective techniques, such as photogrammetry, led to the characterisation, reading and experimental reproduction of the markings, thus confirming their human nature and ruling out any doubt concerning their production by functional, natural, animal, geological or accidental means. These same studies, which also involved analysing the traces of sediment and colorimetric differences, also ruled out the possibility that these markings could have been made after the cave was opened in 1912. They therefore date back to well before the 20th century.
The question then was to determine in what period these engravings had been produced. A soil study revealed that the cave had been partly flooded by the Loire river on several occasions, a river that currently flows some two kilometres (1.25 miles) from the site. Over the millennia, flood silt filled the cave and covered the archaeological layers containing the Neanderthal tools, which had been discovered in 1912. This silt eventually blocked the entrance to the cave, hiding it under several metres of deposit. The date of its closure has been found by determining the age of this deposit using optically stimulated luminescence (Geophysics laboratory of Budapest, Technical University of Denmark, Geosciences laboratory of Rennes - CNRS/University of Rennes - OSUR).

Engravings produced before the arrival of Homo sapiens in Europe

Further dating results obtained in 2023 determined that the cave was closed 57,000 years ago, at a time when Homo sapiens was not yet present in Europe. The base of the main layer of silt from the Loire overflow covering the archaeological layers, which were most probably contemporaneous with the cave wall engravings, underwent two dating processes. The result was an age of 75,000 years. Therefore, Neanderthals inhabited this cave at least 57,000 years ago, and probably up to 75,000 years ago. They left tools, animal bones and quite exceptionally, cave wall engravings behind them. This discovery also shows that cave wall engravings were not simply unique to Homo sapiens.

A triangular panel made with such care that it could only have been intentional A triangular panel made with such care that it appears to have been intentional © J.-C. Marquet

Reference and consortium members

The earliest unambiguous Neanderthal engravings on cave walls: La Roche-Cotard, Loire Valley, France
Jean-Claude Marquet, Trine Holm Freiesleben, Kristina Jørkov Thomsen, Andrew Sean Murray, Morgane Calligaro, Jean-Jacques Macaire, Eric Robert, Michel Lorblanchet, Thierry Aubry, Grégory Bayle, Jean-Gabriel Bréhéret, Hubert Camus, Pascal Chareille, Yves Egels, Émilie Guillaud, Guillaume Guérin, Pascale Gautret, Morgane Liard, Magen O’Farrell, Jean-Baptiste Peyrouse, Edit Thamó-Bozsó, Pascal Verdin, Dorota Wojtczak, Christine Oberlin, Jacques Jaubert.
PLOS ONE, le 21 juin 2023.

Research consortium members

  • Cités, Territoires, Environnement et Sociétés (Citeres, CNRS/université de Tours),
  • GéoHydrosystèmes continentaux. Faculté des Sciences. Université de Tours,
  • Centre Tourangeau d’histoire et d’étude des sources de l’Université de Tours (CeTHiS)
  • Archéozoologie, archéobotanique : sociétés, pratiques et environnements (AASPE, CNRS/MNHN),
  • Géosciences Rennes (CNRS/Université de Rennes),
  • Institut des Sciences de la terre d’Orléans (CNRS/BRGM/Université d’Orléans),
  • Laboratoire de géographie physique et environnementale (Geolab, CNRS/Université Clermont Auvergne/Université de Limoges),
  • De la préhistoire à l'actuel : culture, environnement et anthropologie (Pacea, CNRS/Ministère de la Culture/Université de Bordeaux),
  • Histoire naturelle de l'Homme préhistorique (CNRS/MNHN/Université de Perpignan via Domitia)
  • Archéologie et sciences de l’antiquité (ArScAn, CNRS/Ministère de la Culture/Université Panthéon-Sorbonne/Université Paris Nanterre),
  • Cultures et environnements : préhistoire, antiquité, Moyen-Âge (Cepam, CNRS/Université Côte d’Azur),
  • Archéologie et archéométrie (ArAr, CNRS/Université Lumière Lyon 2),
  • Department Physics, Technical University of Denmark (Roskilde, Danemark),
  • Nordic Laboratory for Luminescence Dating, Department of Geoscience, Aarhus University (Aarhus, Danemark),
  • Côa Parque, Fundação para a Salvaguarda e Valorização do Vale do Côa (Vila Nova de Foz Côa, Portugal),
  • Centro de Arqueologia Universidade de Lisboa, Facultade de Letras (Lisbonne, Portugal),
  • Mining and Geological Survey of Hungary (Budapest, Hongrie),
  • Integrative Prehistory and Archaeological Science, University of Basel (Basel, Suisse).

Archaeologists from the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research also contributed to this study.