Paleoanthropologist and Nat Geo Emerging Explorer Genevieve von Petzinger descends into ancient caves to study Ice Age art. Standing in front of a painting made some 20,000 years ago, she says, “bridges the gap of time.” How about rock-art sites as destinations? Von Petzinger, author of The First Signs: Unlocking the Mysteries of the World’s Oldest Symbols, recommends making tracks to these three Ice Age hot spots, all in Europe.
This area in southwest France has multiple caves with well-preserved Ice Age art, including the famed Lascaux Cave. Two von Petzinger picks are near the village Les Eyzies-de-Tayac: Les Combarelles, with engravings of animals and human figures, and Font-de-Gaume cave, with colourful rock paintings. Don’t miss Rouffignac Cave’s drawings of mammoths.
The vibrant red dyes used on the walls of Altamira caves were sometimes used to represent Bison.
PHOTOGRAPH BY SERGI REBOREDO, REDUX
El Castillo Cave holds some of the oldest cave art in Europe, including dozens of red handprints that date back more than 30,000 years, some made by Ice Age women and children. Pro tip: The cave can be slick; wear shoes with good traction. Afterward visit two notable Cantabrian museums that illuminate cave art: Altamira Museum and the Museum of Prehistory and Archaeology.
CÔA VALLEY, PORTUGAL
A prehistoric petroglyph of a bull adorns one of the world's oldest rock art sites in Portugal.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BABAK TAFRESHI, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE
East of the city of Porto, this river valley is one of the best places in Europe for open-air Paleolithic rock art. Book a guided tour in a 4x4 to explore a plateau little changed since the Ice Age. View engraved images on hundreds of rock faces. “It’s like visiting Jurassic Park,” von Petzinger says. Also a must: the Côa Museum, which traces the valley’s history.
Genevieve von Petzinger is a paleontologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer.
What do these mysterious cave markings mean? Genevieve Von Petzinger takes the stage to talk about her passion for exploration and her quest to uncover the hidden meaning behind these geometric signs.
Lead Image: Paleolithic art adorns the walls of Lascaux Cave in southwest France. PHOTOGRAPH BY COTTON COULSON, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE