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15 caves that hold the world’s ancient art

By Erin Van Rheenen
October 10, 2017, 2:52:48 PM EDT

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Tens of thousands of years ago, artists used ochre and natural ingredients to create the world’s first art–cave paintings. From simple hand stencils to elaborate fight scenes and intricate monster-like shamanic figures, these ancient paintings allow us to consider the past.

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In canyons and caves all over the world, this still-vibrant art from long ago is full of mysterious messages from ancient peoples and civilizations, allowing cultures to speak across time.

1. Nine Mile Canyon, Utah

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Called “the longest art gallery in the world,” Utah’s Nine Mile Canyon is also one of the oldest. The part of the canyon dense with petroglyphs (etchings) is actually 40 miles long, with at least 1,000 rock art sites showcasing more than 10,000 individual images. Created by the Fremont and Ute peoples between A.D. 600 and 1300, the glyphs are etched into pink and orange sandstone cliffs, with artists favoring the areas where desert varnish has darkened the stone; chipping away at this surface creates lighter-colored figures that really “pop.” There are the long-horned sheep, as well as bison, deer, dogs, and at least three striking and memorable owls all in one panel. The anthropomorphic figures run the gamut from hunters with bows to copulating couples to figures with horned headdresses.

2. Coso Rock Art District, China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station, California

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In the high desert of Eastern California, you’ll find a series of canyons containing tens of thousands of rock art images, some dating back 16,000 years. This abundance makes for the greatest concentration of petroglyphs in the Western Hemisphere, all the more remarkable for its desolate and remote setting, smack in the middle of a military weapons testing site. Though the area has been designated a National Historic Monument, visiting requires an application process and a Navy-approved guide, through the Maturango Museum in Ridgecrest or the Navy’s public affairs office.

Once you get your clearance (US citizens only, sorry to say), you’ll venture forth with a group and a guide, finding panel after panel of vivid depictions of bighorn sheep, dogs, shamanic figures, shields, masks, and other symbols. There’s even a petroglyph of what some say is an attacking mountain lion, and another of what may be a prehistoric kayaker.

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