Tucked away in Libya’s remote southwestern corner, the Jebel Acacus region (also known as Tadrart Akakus, Hadrat being the Berber word for “mountain”) is home to one of the world’s greatest collections of prehistoric art. There are thousands of rock and cave paintings here in a wide range of styles, dating from 12000 BC to AD 100 and showing changing ways of life in the Sahara, along with depictions of local flora and fauna. The area’s fantastical desert scenery is another major attraction, with sweeping sand dunes, rock arches, the stumps of eroded mountains, and a labyrinth of twisting wadis (dry river valleys).
England is not particularly known for its rock art, so there was considerable excitement in 2003 when prehistoric paintings showing bison, birds, and an ibex were discovered at Creswell Crags, the only example of Ice Age rock art so far discovered in the country. Paintings apart, the Crags offer a rich insight into life during the last Ice Age, between 50,000 and 10,000 years ago. The caves here, carved by centuries of erosion out of the flanks of a beautiful limestone gorge, were used by hunters as a temporary camp during their seasonal pursuit of herds of migrating mammoths, bison, and reindeer. Creswell is one of the most northerly points they ever reached.
The Gobustan (or Qobustan) State Reserve has an estimated 6,000 petroglyphs, scattered amidst the rocky outcrops and caves that dot the desert landscape southwest of Baku. Carvings include depictions of hunters, animals, battles, and dancers, as well as a famous image of a reed boat which led Norwegian ethnologist Thor Heyerdahl to suggest that Scandinavians might originally have come from this region. Gobustan is also known for its belching cold mud volcanoes, and for curious musical stones, which produce strange sounds when struck with a smaller stone, often compared to the noise of a tambourine.
Cueva de las Maravillas
Discovered in 1926, the Cueva de las Maravillas (“Cave of Miracles”) is a veritable subterranean art gallery. The walls of the single huge grotto, over 2,625 ft (800 m) long, are decorated with almost 500 quaintly stylized and perfectly preserved pictographs and petroglyphs, created by the Taino people around 1,000 years ago. The cave is also home to an impressive quantity of stalactites, stalagmites, columns, and other unusual crystalline formations. With guided tours lasting an hour, it is well set up for visitors and is one of the few caves in the world accessible to wheelchairs
The remote Burrup Peninsula, or Murujuga, of northwestern Australia, is part of the Dampier Archipelago. It is home to what is claimed to be the world’s largest array of rock carvings, dating back some 10,000 years or more. According to estimates, there are as many as a million carvings to be found here, showing an astonishing range of images including animals (kangaroos, emus, snakes, dogs, turtles, and whales) and humans, some depicted carrying traditional objects such as boomerangs and wearing ceremonial headdresses.
There are very few prehistoric-painted grottos still open to the public. The finest is Font-de-Gaume, with some 240 paintings and engravings dating from around 12000 BC. As at Lascaux, the paintings were created using color-blowing techniques, as well as employing the natural contours of the karst cave walls to lend shape and volume to figures. There’s a positive menagerie of animals on display here: bison, mammoths, deer, and horses appear most often, but you can also make out a wolf, a bear, and two rhinoceroses. Together with enigmatic hand outlines and geometrical shapes, they offer a rare and fascinating glimpse into the lifestyle of a remote Paleolithic era.