In France, earliest-ever wall art appealed to hunters ... and lovers

Engravings found in southwestern France on what was once the ceiling of a cave used by reindeer hunters 37,000 years ago included depictions of animals and female genitalia.

Researchers in France have uncovered what may be the earliest evidence of interior decorating in Europe, engravings on a stone block that date to some 37,000 years ago. The art is associated with the first modern humans to migrate from Africa to Europe – the Aurignacian culture.

The find – on the underside of a 1.5-ton limestone slab that once acted as the ceiling of a natural stone shelter – included depictions of animals, as well as representations of female genitalia.

The art is slightly older than the previous underground record-holders, adorning the walls of a cave known as Grotte Chauvet in southeastern France. But that art – drawings of horses, cave lions, rhino, and other animals – appears deep inside what would have been a lightly trafficked cave.

The limestone-slab art, by contrast, is tied to a shelter used by reindeer hunters. It's a site known as Abri Castanet that also hosts the remains of ornament workshops, bone and antler tools, and fireplaces.

In short, the ceiling art was tied into everyday life, notes Randall White, a New York University anthropologist who led the team reporting the results in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Aurignacian art at the site – which includes stone and bone carvings, beads, and other rock paintings in addition to the wall etchings – “is not just about inventing graphic expression, or inventing sculpture,” Dr. White says. It's part of a larger explosion in innovation that took place in a fairly short time as Aurignacians moved north into colder, unfamiliar territory already occupied by Neanderthals, who had been there for 250,000 years. The rapid evolution in art and personal adornment may have served at least as much as a means of identifying “them” and “us” as it did satisfying a craving for Stone Age style.

“We often imagine that it must have been the Neanderthals who had to change in the face of these incoming modern humans,” he says. “But in fact it looks much more like the modern humans were changing in the face of this well-ensconced population of people who knew the terrain.”

Indeed, he adds, the evidence shows that artifacts associated with the Aurignacians changed more in the first 100 years of their first appearance in the archaeological record than Neanderthal artifacts had undergone in 100,000 years. Innovation and adaptability may well have played a key role in the extinction of the Neanderthal – a process that took a mere 5,000 years – and their replacement by modern humans, White suggests.

The innovations ranged from increasingly effective ways to attach spearheads to the spears' shafts to carving the earliest human-female figurine –shaped from a mammoth tusk – and the earliest musical instrument – a bone flute – yet found on the continent.

The Abri Castanet site sits on a slope that helps mark the Vézère River Valley in southwestern France. Although researchers first excavated the site in 1911, no one had worked on it since the mid 1920s. Over the intervening years, it became a garbage dump for a farmhouse located upslope.

Even then, the site was known for some of the earliest evidence of art and body adornment in Europe. White and colleagues returned to the site in the 1980s to resume uncovering its secrets. This new result is the kind of find that brighten any archaeologist's day.

“I can't tell you how many stone blocks I've looked at as they came out of the site,” White says. “After a while, your sort of get depressed and say: Wow, all the old guys in the old days found all the good stuff.”

Not quite. The team had carefully broken the ceiling slab into manageable blocks. As the first block reached White's lab, he says he noticed its surface had an unusual feel and a reddish tint. The same held true for a second block removed later in the week.. As White and a colleague stood over technicians easing the fourth or fifth 150-pound block from its resting place, the technicians turned the block over to examine its underside.

“The colleague standing next to me said: Oh [expletive]! A vulva!” White recalls when the etched representation came into view. “The chills just went up and down because we were the first people to have found one of these things since the 1920s.”

Unlike those earlier researchers, White and his team had access to a range of high-tech tools to analyze the stone, the soil underneath it, and get state-of-the-art dates. Indeed, the ceiling's collapse was sudden enough to leave a raised relief of the etched vulva on what had been the dirt floor of the shelter.

The block of ceiling slab also had small artifacts stuck to it. With no way for erosion or other disturbances to jumble artifacts and soils layers beneath the slab in ways that would confuse attempts to interpret the find, White and his team found everything just as they appeared in the moments before the ceiling collapsed.

“We've got the perfect scientific context, we've got it dated, we've got all the team members who really know how to take it from there," he says.

In addition to the clearly visible vulva, the team also found an unfinished animal carved in bas-relief. Indeed, nearly all of the block's underside shows what the team interprets to be impact scars from stone chisels.

No need for Michelangelo-style scaffolding here. The shelter's ceiling was little over six feet above the floor – within arms' reach for the shelter's occupants.

And welcome shelter it likely seemed. Where today the region is heavily forested, 37,000 years ago it was a steppe with less than 10 percent tree cover. Temperatures could dip to as low as -25 degrees Celsius (-13 degrees Fahrenheit). That's a far cry from the warmth of Africa the Aurignacians left. Indeed, the evidence from the site suggests the hunters occupied the site only in winter.

“We're within 5,000 years of the dispersal out of Africa, and these people are still 'Africa-adapted' moving into a territory that has no parallel in Africa. It's a pretty interesting moment,” White says.

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