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Cave art has given researchers and scientists a fascinating glimpse into past human life, including ancient relatives like the Neanderthals. About 40,000 to 400,000 years back, this archaic subspecies roamed Europe and Asia. They became extinct when modern Homo sapiens rose to power. But before that, the two groups made contact and even passed each other. In fact, most humans today have a small percentage of Neanderthal DNA. Scientists are increasingly studying them, and it turns out that  early Europeans deliberately carved cave walls in France long before Homo sapiens came to the region. The caves of La Roche-Côtard in the Loire Valley hold fascinating Palaeolithic artefacts that have been sealed in rock for over 57,000 years, according to a recently announced study. 

The cave, however, was not discovered by men until the year 1846. During excavations in preparation for the railway expansion, the team discovered the cave entrance. Current researchers, who began investigating the cave in 2016, have concluded that it was closed  to the world at least 57,000 years ago. During this period, the Loire River flooded frequently, bringing sediment into the cave. This sediment eventually blocked the entrance, and it was minerals like quartz in the rock that the team tested using photostimulative luminescence dating.

Traces and lines are drawn on the rocks inside the cave. The research team carefully mapped these and compared them to Neanderthal sculptures elsewhere. They also identified  cave bears and other traces of 19th-century humans. All  signs indicated that the carving was done slowly and carefully by hand. Like other caves in the area, the interior was lined with soft chalk known as tufffor under a layer of clay. You can engrave by hand or with  tools. “When a fingertip touches the film, it leaves a mark in the form of an impact. When the fingertip moves, it leaves a long, narrow digital trail,” says lead author Jean-Claude Marche of the University of Tours. 

Ancient sculptors probably used tools in addition to their hands. Scattered flaky tools known as Musterian techniques (typical Neanderthal tool style) were found in the cave. The researchers experimented with similar tools to create their own carvings in a nearby cave. I have yet to find a direct connection to sculpture, but there is a strong connection. 

But how do we know that it was the Neanderthals who carried these tools and left their mark? It had not arrived in this part of France. As such, these marks are the oldest known Neanderthal marks, surpassing the 39,000-year-old mark found in Gibraltar.

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