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Anthropologists discover oldest wall art in collapsed cave in France

May 14, 2012|By Thomas H. Maugh II
  • Unidentifiable animal figure painted in red and black.
Unidentifiable animal figure painted in red and black. (Raphaelle Bourillon / Centre…)

Anthropologists working in southern France have discovered what they believe to be the oldest known wall art in a rock shelter that collapsed 37,000 years ago. The inscribed and painted objects in the shelter are thought to be slightly older than the previous oldest art, found at Grotte Chauvet, also in southeastern France. Both caves are relics of the Aurignacian period, named after the Aurignac site in France where the first artifacts from the period were discovered. The Aurignacian period stretches from about 40,000 years ago to 28,000 years ago and is the source of the famous Venus figurines, such as the Venus of Willendorf, which are the first statuettes of humans, displaying exaggerated female characteristics.

The new wall art was discovered in a rock shelter called Abri Castanet, near Dordogne, France. The site was found in the early 1900s and has been excavated several times over the intervening decades, yielding thousands of pierced animal teeth, pierced shells, ivory and soapstone beads, engravings and paintings on limestone slabs. "Early Aurignacian humans functioned, more or less, like humans today," said anthropologist Randall White of New York University, who led the new study. "They had relatively complex social identities communicated through personal ornamentation, and they practiced sculpture and graphic arts."

The ceiling of the shelter collapsed about 37,000 years ago, according to radiocarbon dating of the layers above it. That collapse effectively halted use of the site by Aurignacian humans and impaired attempts to excavate it.

Beginning in 2007, White and his colleagues excavated a massive, 1.5-metric-ton block of limestone that had formerly been the ceiling of the shelter. Using sculptor's tools, they carefully broke the block into smaller, more readily handled pieces and removed them from the site. The limestone had pulverized all the artifacts that had been below it in the cave, smashing them into dust. But objects that had been engraved on the surface of the stone could be clearly seen in "negative" images preserved on the soil of the rock shelter as well as on the rock itself, and traces of paintings could be discerned. The art includes depictions of animals and geometric forms, including round symbols that are commonly believed to represent vulvas.

Unlike the paintings found at Grotte Chauvet, "which are deep underground and away from living areas, the engravings and paintings at Castanet are directly associated with everyday life, given their proximity to tools, fireplaces, bone and antler tool production and ornament workshops," White said. The finding should provide new insights into the role of art and graphic representation in the lives of early modern humans, he added.

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