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Earliest Artists

Imagining Their Art through Their Eyes

Horizontal red rock formation with green grass and tree in the distance.

If you were to create a mural to represent yourself and your life, what would you choose to include?

For thousands of years, humans have been capturing stories through art. The oldest surviving art form is rock art. Petroglyphs (rock carvings) and pictographs (rock paintings) are the expressions of individuals from generations past, each experiencing a daily life as real as your own.

These delicate yet enduring depictions of human life and thought open a world of discovery and mystery. What prompted our forebears to create these images millennia ago?

Though we may never really know, we can lean on the expertise of archeologists and historians who have carefully pieced together possible explanations. Experts suggest that early artists may have created these carvings and paintings to preserve spiritual traditions, to tell stories, and even to make maps.

Whatever the reality is, thinking about what might have motivated these creations provides a perfect springboard for experiencing historic rock art firsthand.

Jagged cliff rock face.

Where to Find Them

Although some rock art sites are not open for public access, many sites are available for general viewing, and they are well worth the trip!

Petroglyph National Monument

Albuquerque, New Mexico

This national monument contains one of the largest collections of petroglyphs in North America. Many of the rock carvings were etched by Native Americans and by early Spanish settlers in the relatively recent past (400–700 years ago), capturing part of the early story of our civilization today.

Jeffers Petroglyphs

Comfrey, Minnesota

Jeffers Petroglyphs features about 5,000 petroglyphs. You can tour the park in the evening for an even better look at these 7,000-year-old glyphs. Jeffers is a spiritual place to many Native Americans, and it is one of the oldest continually used sacred sites in the world.

uKhahlamba-Drakensberg National Park

KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

Nestled among the fantastic scenery of the Drakensberg Mountains, the rock paintings of this breathtaking national park preserve a memory of the San people who created them. Visitors can book guided walks to the rock art at several locations throughout the vast park, including Kamberg, Cathedral Peak, and Giant’s Castle.

The Grampians National Park

Victoria, Australia

Five significant rock art shelters are open to the public in the majestic Grampians mountains in southern Australia. The most culturally significant of these pictograph sites is Bunjil Shelter, which features the only known rock painting of Bunjil, the benevolent creator esteemed by the indigenous people of southeastern Australia.

Bhimbetka Rock Shelters

Bhojpur Raisen, India

If you’re looking for old rock art to admire, this is the place to go. The Bhimbetka Rock Shelters are home to one of the oldest known petroglyphs in the world—one dated to 290,000–700,000 BCE! Bhimbetka’s beautiful pictographs also make these rock shelters a worthwhile destination.

Preparing to Visit

Before you throw on tennis shoes and head out the door to visit one of these remarkable sites, be sure to prepare well. For one thing, you may want to exchange your tennis shoes for hiking boots, as many of the sites require a bit of a hike to reach the art.

Research what it takes to get there. What is the terrain like? Is there an admission fee? Is the site open year-round, or does it have seasonal closures? Be sure to prepare with adequate water and protection from the sun, wherever you go.

When you arrive, remember that many of these rock art sites are sacred to the indigenous people whose histories are preserved there. Help protect the art by leaving it untouched.

Lastly, go ready to think about the people who created these images ages ago. What story was the artist trying to preserve? Does the image represent reality, or does it show a dream (or nightmare!) of how life could be? How did the artist and their people feel about the image?

Once you’ve visited one of these awe-inspiring sites, you might consider these last questions: Have your ideas changed about what you’d include in a mural representing your life? And how will you add to humanity’s marvelous heritage?

Becca Smith