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For the longest time it was the highpoint of prehistoric cave art, so much so that art history books started with its story; Lascaux Cave Art, ca. 15,000 BCE, with its predominantly female animals and religious belief in animism.

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Chauvet Cave

Then came the discovery of Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave in southern France, a cave that contains the best-preserved figurative and earliest accepted cave paintings, ca. 38,000 BCE, in the world. When the discovery of Chauvet was announced, one researcher stated: As far back in history as Lascaux is from the present day, Chauvet is equally distant back in history from Lascaux. The visual key however was that Chauvet cave imagery exhibited predominantly male animals. But that is not the story here.


A recent press release announced a new discovery, one that challenges accepted history and perceptions of Neanderthals in the far distant past. The long-held assumptions about Neanderthals were that they were incapable of the kinds of complex behaviors and skills necessary to work deep underground in caves. It was believed that it would have been too daunting a task for their accumulated knowledge and abilities at that point in upper Paleolithic history.

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Bruniquel Cave

The newest discovery is 1,000 feet into France’s Bruniquel Cave where two stone rings just under a foot and a half high made from pieces of broken and chopped-up stalagmites; pillar-shaped mineral deposits that stick up from the ground. The Neanderthals made these structures by breaking the stalagmites and formally rearranging the stone pieces into rings. Research shows that after the site was abandoned, new layers of calcite formed on the human-made structures encasing them. By dating the end of the growth of the stalagmites used in the stone structures, and the beginning of the regrowth sealing those same structures, the researchers have estimated the age of the installation at 176,500 years, ± 2,000 years. Additional cave samples confirmed this unexpected result.

Symbolic or Ritual

The purpose of the oval structures—one measuring 172 square feet and one measuring 25 square feet—is still a matter of speculation, though they clearly served some symbolic or ritual purpose. It is believed that there were seasonal rituals that signified the changing of the seasons, the weather, and the location of an annual ritual retreat.


Throughout human history, people have struggled with two competing impulses: the desire to make a mark for future generations, and a deep confusion about what, exactly, that mark should be. In this instance the earliest Bruniquel cave mark was two stone circles.

With this discover the making of marks with meaning and function is now considered to be a Paleolithic idea. Originally believed to be a Neolithic idea, it now appears that the Neanderthals established the concept/idea of marks organized in relation to function, materials, and site. The earliest marks are functions of and made from the structure and gave it symbolic value or meaning, while the materials and the site determined the aesthetic and, in this case, structural principles.

Over time there has evolved an essential bond between the people and the marks they made. We now know that marks take many varied forms in different societies based upon the following concerns: cultural, economical, social, psychological, and environmental.


About the Author

Lawrence Klepper

Lawrence Klepper

As an artist, Gallery Management Instructor, Gallery Director, Independent Curator, and Special Exhibitions Coordinator for City art museums, college art galleries, and commercial galleries in Califor...