Cosquer Cave Paintings/Engravings
Dating, Description, Significance of Hand Stencils, Animal Images.

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Handprints from Cosquer Cave,
dating from about 25,000 BCE.

Cosquer Cave Paintings (c.25,000 BCE)
Hand Stencils, Animal Engravings/Paintings, Abstract Signs


Discovery, Location and Description
Cave Art
Hand Stencils
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Hand stencil from Cosquer Cave
(c.25,000 BCE) Gravettian culture.


The Cosquer cave is home to a unique cache of prehistoric art on the south coast of France. Occupied by Stone Age artists during the early period of Gravettian art, it can now only be entered through an underwater tunnel whose entrance is some 40 metres below sea level. This is because when it was first decorated, during the last Ice Age glaciation, around 25,000 BCE, a vast amount of frozen water was stored in polar regions with the result that sea levels were 120 metres (400 feet) lower than they are today. As a result, about three quarters of the cave painting has been destroyed. As in the case of the contemporaneous Pech-Merle Cave paintings, scientists have determined that Cosquer's cave art was created during two main phases. The oldest artworks - hand stencils, handprints and some animal engravings - were done during the Gravettian, while the rest of the animal engravings and paintings were completed during the following period of Solutrean art, from 19,000 BCE onwards. Together with the Abri Castanet Engravings (35,000 BCE) in the Dordogne, the Chauvet Cave Paintings (30,000 BCE) and the Grotte des Deux-Ouvertures in the Ardeche, Pech-Merle and Roucadour Cave (24,000 BCE) in the Lot, Cosquer contains some of the oldest Stone Age art in France.

Discovery, Location and Description

The Cosquer cave is located in limestone hills around the Calanque de Morgiou (a calanque is Corsican/Occitan for 'steep-walled cove') not far from Marseille. After the Ice Age, the Mediterranean rose The entrance to the cave is located about 120 feet underwater. It was discovered by the deep-sea diver Henri Cosquer in 1985, who returned several times before discovering a number of hand stencils, pictographs and petroglyphs on the cave's walls. In 1991, archeologists were informed of the discovery of this rock art and performed several investigations before the cave complex was assigned to the French Ministry of Culture.


The earliest art at Cosquer, made from 25,000 BCE onwards, consists of 65 hand stencils, finger fluting (see also Koonalda Cave Art) and other geometric symbols, as well as a number of small animal engravings incised on the slanting wall next to the big submerged shaft. The later rock art, created from 19,000 to 17,000 BCE, consists of some 170 images of animals, including marine creatures like fish and seals, as well as a number of more complex abstract symbols. Many of these abstract signs are rectangular in shape with strange appendages and do not occur in any other Franco-Cantabrian cave art of the period. Note: For more about chronology and dating, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 2.5 million BCE).

Cave Art

Cosquer's parietal art consists of 177 engraved and painted animal figures belonging to 11 different species. It features horses (63), bison and aurochs (24), ibex (28), red deer (15), chamois (4), megaloceros deer (2), saiga antelope (1), and felines (1), as well as a number of highly unusual images of marine life, such as seals (9), fish (4), auks (3), jellyfish, penguins and squid. A further 20 animal figures are unclear and 3 are combinations of different creatures. In addition, there is one anthropomorphic figure of a human figure with a seal's head. The majority of the animals are depicted in the form of rock engravings, with less than a third actually painted. Although quite a few drawings of fish have been found in different caves, the Cosquer images of seals are extremely rare in Stone Age art, the only other known examples being in La Pileta Cave and Nerja Cave in Andalusia, Spain.

Hand Stencils

Cosquer is arguably best known for its hand stencils - it has 44 black and 21 red stencils, more than any other cave in Europe, except for the Gargas Cave Hand Stencils in the Hautes-Pyrenees, and possibly El Castillo Cave in Spain. All Cosquer's hand stencils belong to adults, and many of them have incomplete fingers. In addition, the abstract art at Cosquer includes some 220 geometric signs and about 10 indeterminate markings.


Cosquer Cave is mainly significant because it is situated in an area where no Palaeolithic art had ever been found before. This underlines the possibility that many prehistoric coastal caves around the Mediterranean in France, Italy and Spain, (and also in distant places like Australia, see: Aboriginal Rock Art) have been lost to rising sea levels, along with all their cave paintings and other artworks. Archeologists estimate that if Cosquer had remained above seal level, it would now contain something like 600-800 animal images alone, and would rank alongside the Lascaux Cave paintings - and those in the caves of Trois Freres, Altamira or Chauvet - as a major centre of ancient art during the Upper Paleolithic.

Related Articles

Roc-de-Sers Cave (17,000 BCE)
Major centre of Solutrean rock carving.

Font de Gaume Cave (c.14,000 BCE)
Renowned for its "Bison frieze" and "Licking Reindeer".

Tuc d'Audoubert Cave (c.13,500 BCE)
Noted for its bison relief sculptures.

Trois Freres Cave (13,000 BCE)
Famous for an engraved figure known as the "Sorcerer".

Roc-aux-Sorciers (c.12,000 BCE)
Has a magnificent limestone frieze of relief sculpture.

Les Combarelles Cave (11,000 BCE)
Important Magdalenian sanctuary noted for its animal engravings.

• For cupules in French art, see: Ferrassie Cave Cupule Art (c.60,000 BCE).


• For more about prehistoric parietal art in France, see: Homepage.

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