What is a Petroglyph? The Fascinating History of Humans Decorating Rocks
Have you ever been on a walk and noticed an unusual rock at your feet? We have! If the Kindness Rocks Project has hit your town, you may have seen painted rocks hidden in plain sight. The idea is that spreading messages and images of joy is something anyone can do. Just grab a rock, paint it, and leave it where someone will see it when they need a dose of kindness in their lives. It’s a little serendipity to spread positivity and give people a friendly thought to ponder.
But seeing colorful or glow-in-the-dark rocks pop up out of an otherwise regular landscape got us to thinking. Who first came up with the idea of painting rocks, anyway? Props to Megan Murphy for turning painted rocks into random acts of kindness, but it turns out she wasn’t the first person to dab paint on stone.
Petroglyphs, Pictographs, and Earth Figures - Oh My!
We hit the books and discovered that humans began experimenting with stone art long before they even created language. The oldest known cave painting is over 40,000 years old and was discovered on the island of Borneo in Indonesia. It’s a depiction of a bull — in fact, many early rock paintings are of animals, though some also feature human figures and handprints.
There are actually three different types of rock art found around the world:
- Petroglyphs are rock carvings. Artists used a stone chisel to scratch or tap away pieces of stone. Removing the top layer revealed a different color rock below the surface, which created contrast for the images. Petroglyphs are long-lasting because they can’t be washed away. Some of the most famous are right here in the United States, made by the Pueblo people in New Mexico and other Native American groups.
- Pictographs are rock paintings. The earliest paints were made of crushed earth, charcoal, and minerals. They’re much more fragile than petroglyphs since they can be washed away in the rain, so surviving examples are usually found in protected caves. Early artists blew dry minerals through a reed to create a hand stencil. The result is a vibrant color outlining the hand, which looks like plain stone.
- Earth figures are rock art made on the ground. They can be made by carving designs and pictures into a rock on the ground (large petroglyphs that you can walk on), or by stacking rocks to form a picture or pattern. A good example is the Rock Eagle Effigy Mound in Georgia.
It’s a good thing kindness rocks aren't petroglyphs! We might all run out of patience if we had to chisel our way to success. We’re also definitely glad that our modern pictographs are made with acrylic paint so the designs don’t wash off in the rain!
Fun Facts about Ancient Rock Paintings
Once we started learning about petroglyphs and other rock art, we didn’t want to stop! Here are some of our favorite fun facts:
- Rock art is found on every continent on earth except Antarctica. Wherever humans go, they take their creativity with them!
- Ancient rock paint was messy: To make your own paint, you had to grind up clay or minerals into dust, then mix it with a binder like egg whites, blood or animal fat.
- Rock art is more common in the desert, where the dry weather helps preserve the paint on pictographs and keeps the carvings of petroglyphs from eroding away.
- The Lascaux Cave in France is home to some of the world’s most beautiful cave paintings, with delicately shaded images of bulls and other animals running in fluid motion instead of standing still.
- The world’s first oil paintings were created on the rock walls of caves in Afghanistan. Natural stone is our oldest canvas!
Rock Art Today
While archeologists suspect that many ancient works of rock art were created by shamans and other leaders for religious purposes, modern rock art is definitely for everyone! It’s common to find rocks engraved with inspirational words or quotes to decorate the home, and anyone old enough to hold a paintbrush can create their own painted rocks. We like to think that the power of creativity connects all of us, no matter where or when we walk the earth.
Want to share the tradition of rock art with your favorite kids? It’s easy to get started with the Hide and Seek Rock Painting Kit!