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Mammoth Cave National Park

Ancient Expressions: The World’s Oldest Works of Prehistoric Art


Creating abstractions of reality, art has been a part of human expression for hundreds of thousands of years. Prehistoric stone and bone sculptures, and cave art are ideas and emotions expressed through visual projection, and it was initially believed by archaeologists that the oldest art works and paintings existed mainly in Europe, until the discovery of cave art in Indonesia, and sculpture and cave art in Africa. The term ‘ancient art’ may refer to the many different types of art produced by the advanced cultures of ancient China, India, Mesopotamia, Persia, Palestine, Egypt, Greece and Rome, however the five oldest art works ever discovered belong to a pre-literate culture, and is referred to as prehistoric art.

Cave art, generally, the numerous paintings and engravings found in European caves and shelters dating back to the Ice Age (Upper Paleolithic) roughly between 40,000 and 14,000 years ago, was deemed by experts to be the work of modern humans ( Homo Sapiens) and while most examples of cave art have been found in France, Portugal, England, Italy, Romania, Germany, and Russia, nowhere have so many prehistoric artists’ easels been found than in Spain.

El Castillo Cave Paintings, Spain: 39000 BC

The Cueva de El Castillo, or Cave of the Castle, is an archaeological site within the complex of the Caves of Monte Castillo, in Puente Viesgo, on the edge of the Pas River in Cantabria, Spain. A steep conical limestone elevation hides an intricate labyrinth of caves which have been frequented by man for at least the past 150,000 years. Discovered in 1903 by Spanish archaeologist Hermilio Alcalde del Río, who found an extensive sequence of images executed in charcoal and red ochre on the walls and ceilings dating from the Lower Paleolithic to the Bronze Age, and up to the Middle Ages. Over 150 depictions have already been catalogued, including intricately painted deer complete with shadowing, and among the images is the oldest known cave painting anywhere on earth: a large red stippled disk in the  Panel de las Manos dated to more than 40,000 years old.

Interior de la Cueva del Castillo en Puente Viesgo, Cantabria (España). (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Interior de la Cueva del Castillo en Puente Viesgo, Cantabria (España). (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The interior of the cave contains numerous figures corresponding to the dawn of the presence of Homo Sapiens in Europe, and it represents a subterranean walk through the origins of symbolic thought, from the very beginnings of abstract, artistic thought and expression. 


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Ashley Cowie is a Scottish historian, author and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems, in accessible and exciting ways. His books, articles and television shows explore lost cultures and kingdoms, ancient crafts and artifacts, symbols and architecture, myths and legends telling thought-provoking stories which together offer insights into our shared social history.

Top Image: Mammoth Cave National Park (Public Domain)

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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