Anthropologists Discover World’s Earliest Known Wall Art
May 15, 2012

Anthropologists Discover World’s Earliest Known Wall Art

Numerous engraved and painted images of female sex organs, animals and geometric figures discovered in southern France are believed to be the world´s earliest known cave art.

Radiocarbon dating of the engravings, found on a 1.5 metric ton block of limestone in Chauvet Cave in southeastern France, revealed that the art was created some 37,000 years ago.

The cave resides near the areas of Abri Castanet and Abri Blanchard - where some of the oldest examples of mankind living in Eurasia have been found.

The research team, comprised of more than a dozen scientists from American and European universities and research institutions, had been excavating at the site for the past 15 years. Hundreds of personal ornaments were discovered, including 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 New York University anthropology professor Randall White, one of the study's co-authors.

"They had relatively complex social identities communicated through personal ornamentation, and they practiced sculpture and graphic arts."

Aurignacian culture existed until approximately 28,000 years ago.

In 2007, the team discovered an engraved block of limestone in what had been a rock shelter occupied by a group of Aurignacian reindeer hunters. Subsequent geological analysis revealed the ceiling had been about two meters above the floor on which the Aurignacians lived within arms' reach.

Using carbon dating, the researchers determined that both the engraved ceiling, which includes depictions of animals and geometric forms, and the other artifacts found on the living surface below were approximately 37,000 years old.

"This art appears to be slightly older than the famous paintings from the Grotte Chauvet in southeastern France," said White, referring to cave paintings discovered in 1994 of lions, rhinos, and other animals in Chauvet Cave, which were previously believed to be the oldest known cave art.

"But unlike the Chauvet paintings and engravings, 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.

Homo sapiens first colonized Europe from Africa around 40,000 years ago. But until the 1994 discovery, there was little evidence they engaged in any type of sophisticated artistic activity that early.  This led many archaeologists to assume that modern humans developed their artistic skills slowly, over time.

However, the current find, combined with others of approximately the same time period in southern Germany, northern Italy, and southeastern France, raises new questions about the evolutionary and adaptive significance of art and other forms of graphic representation in the lives of modern human populations, White said.

The findings are described in the current issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  An abstract can be viewed here.