World's oldest cave painting discovered

Reindeer hunters carved figures into the walls of a cave in southern France 37, 000 years ago

Detailed enlargements of the vulva depiction from Abri Castanet, it was scratched by reindeer hunters 37, 000 years ago on the wall. © White et al. / PNAS
Read out

Researchers discovered the oldest murals of our ancestors in a cave in southern France. In the collapsed Abri Castanet cave, they found 37, 000 year old engravings and ocher drawings of animals and geometric shapes. These cave drawings are several thousand years older than the murals of the approximately 400 kilometers to the east lying grotto of Chauvet, which were previously considered the oldest testimony of Stone Age painting. The find provides further evidence that art already played a role in people's everyday lives in the early Neolithic period, the scientists report in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The archaeologists discovered these Stone Age mural paintings in 2007 on the underside of a 1.5 ton stone block. Bit by bit they have since removed the stone, recovered the layer with the drawings and analyzed it. The incised pictures on the surface painted with ocher paint show, among other things, an unfinished animal figure consisting of head, forelegs and stomach. "The back end of this perhaps bison figure has apparently not been finished, " write Randall White of New York University's Center for the Study of Human Origins and his colleagues. In addition to the animal figure is an oval shape, which the researchers interpret as a representation of the female genitalia, the vulva. Such vulva pictures are quite typical for this time and region.

Reindeer hunters decorated their rock dwelling

The dating of the drawings and other finds indicates that the Abri Castanet Cave, some 37, 000 years ago, housed a group of reindeer hunters belonging to the culture of the so-called Aurignacian. This Neolithic hunter-gatherer culture was not only anatomically very similar to modern humans. "The early Aurignacian people worked more or less like humans today, " says White. "They had relatively complex social structures and communicated about self-made drawings."

As the engravings decorate the bottom of the limestone block, the researchers assume that the reindeer hunters must have painted the ceiling of their rock dwelling. According to her measurements, the cave was about two meters high before it collapsed. So that the ceiling is just low enough to be reached by the reindeer hunters with outstretched arms, the researchers say. "In contrast to the paintings in the Chauvet Cave, which lay deep beneath the earth and thus far from the habitats of the people of that time, these paintings were created near their fireplaces or workshops - and thus in connection with everyday life", explains Whitert White. This was indicated by the accompanying findings of jewelry and everyday objects.

Carbon dating proves age of painting

That the paintings are around 37, 000 years old, the scientists could capture two different findings. First, they used radiocarbon dating to prove that the surface of the cave ceiling and the former cave floor corresponded to this age. In addition, the archaeologists had found the painted underside of the stone block directly on the cave floor - with no intermediate layers that could have been deposited over time. This suggests that the cave must have caved in a short time after painting, the researchers say. The reindeer hunters were probably the last visitors to the cave 37, 000 years ago. display

The oldest known cave paintings of the Chauvet Cave date back to 30, 000 to 32, 500 years. This makes them about 5, 000 years younger than the rediscovery in the Dordogne. The caved-in cave Abri Castanet has long been considered one of the oldest excavation sites in Eurasia. For the past 15 years archaeologists have unearthed hundreds of jewelery such as pierced animal teeth and shells or even cut beads. (Doi: 10.1073 / pnas.1119663109)

(PNAS / New York University, 15.05.2012 - IRE)