Rock engravings discovered at Abri Castanet, in southern France, have been dated to 37,000 BP, making them the earliest known examples of wall art in the world. According to research by an international team of anthropologists from European and American universities, they predate the famous paintings at the Grotte Chauvet, in southeast France, previously believed to be the oldest.
The limestone engravings at Abri Castanet were discovered in 2007 on a 1.5 ton limestone block on the ceiling of the shelter that, at about 1.7m high, would have been within easy arm’s reach of the artist. They comprise mainly rough etchings and ochre daubs of horses and the female genitalia – a far cry from the intricate animal drawings discovered in 1994 at Grotte Chauvet.
The roughness of the artworks can be attributed to the site’s use. Randall White, of New York University and co-author of the article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, explains that the cave functioned as a shelter for Aurignacian reindeer hunters, everyday people:
‘They decorated the places where they were living, where they were doing all their daily activities,’ he says. ‘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.’
The paintings are associated with the Aurignacian culture, the first modern human culture to populate Europe after the Neanderthals, active from about 38,000 BC to 26,000 BC. Investigation at Abri Castanet site and nearby Abri Blanchard revealed other examples of their aesthetic artefacts, including pierced animal teeth and shells, and ivory and soapstone beads, which would have been used for personal adornment. Radiocarbon dating techniques established that both the ceiling and the finds recovered from the living surface below date to c.37,000 years ago.
‘Early Aurignacian humans functioned, more or less, like humans today,’ says White. ‘They had relatively complex social identities communicated through personal ornamentation, and they practiced sculpture and graphic arts.’
Aurignacian sites in Europe, including Abri Castanet, have sparked a debate about the significance of art as an adaptive trait to all human societies, both ancient and contemporary.
‘There is a whole question about how and why – and why here in this place, at this particular time – you begin to see people spending so much time and energy and imagination on the graphics,’ White says.