Situated in southwest France, a collapsed cave known as Abri Castanet might contain the earliest wall art ever discovered, a new study suggests. The abstract engravings and paintings might be even older than the famous animal images found in the Chauvet cave also in southwest France.
The wall art in Abri collapsed 37,000 years ago, it was a 1.5 metric ton limestone ceiling piece first discovered in 2007. Both Grotte Chauvet and the recent Abri Castanet 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.
According to New York University anthropology professor Randall White, lead author of the paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the art was likely meant to adorn the interior of a shelter for reindeer hunters. "They decorated the places where they were living, where they were doing all their daily activities," informed White.
"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."
The images range from paintings of back of horses to "vulvar imagery" that appears to represent female sex organs, carved into the low ceiling that rose between 1.5 to two meters from the floor, within reach of the hunters.
The work is less sophisticated in comparison with the elaborate paintings of animals found in France's Grotte Chauvet, which was more remote and difficult to access, believed to be between 30,000 and 36,000 years old. Instead, the engravings and paintings at Castanet, were rougher and more primitive in style, and were likely done by everyday people.
"This art appears to be slightly older than the famous paintings from the Grotte Chauvet in southeastern France," said White, citing to the cave paintings discovered in 1994.
"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 that the dating of the Abri Castanet wall art “raises anew the question of the evolutionary and adaptive significance of graphic representation and its role in the successful dispersal of modern human populations out of Africa into Western Eurasia and beyond.” It may also be part of an important artistic legacy: Just 6 miles away lies the astonishing Lascaux cave complex, where people—the descendants, perhaps, of Abri Castanet’s artists—masterfully painted animals, human figures and abstract symbols 17,000 years ago.