Historical story

Cave drawings set new age record

The cave drawings discovered in 2007 at the southern French site of Abri Castanet are no less than 37,000 years old. This is evidenced by reliable carbon dating. The drawings are therefore considered to be the oldest known expressions of prehistoric art in Europe for the time being.

The cave drawings, or rather dozens of individual fragments of drawings, were discovered as early as 2007 on pieces of shattered limestone. The drawings depict, among other things, animals and geometric shapes. Fertility symbols and references to the female sex have also been found.

Geological research revealed that the piece of stone was once part of the cave's ceiling. This ceiling was once about two meters above the cave's living area, giving residents easy access to place their artworks. According to the archaeologists, the ceiling collapsed relatively shortly after the drawings were applied. Reliable C14 dating shows that this must have happened around 37,000 years ago.

The site of Abri Castanet, a collapsed prehistoric rock shelter, and nearby Abri Blanchard have long been known as the oldest European sites of prehistoric artifacts. Remains of hundreds of decorated stones, shells and pieces of ivory have been found in these caves before. These artifacts stem from what archaeologists call the Aurignacian culture. The various prehistoric art forms from this archaeological culture show great similarities. The Aurignacian era started around 40,000 years ago and ended around 28,000 years ago.

The drawings and other artefacts date from the early days of the Aurignacian culture. "The cave drawings appear to be slightly older than the famous drawings in the Chauvet caves in southeastern France," said Randall White, an anthropologist at New York University and one of the authors of the research paper in PNAS. “But it's especially interesting that they are located in the former living area of ​​the cave where they cooked and worked, rather than in enclosed spaces deep underground, as is the case in Chauvet.”

“Human groups in the early Aurignacian era lived in a manner similar to that of modern humans to some extent. They had a relatively complex and well-developed sense of social identity and conveyed that through personal and communal art,” continues White.

While there is considerable disagreement among archaeologists about the exact age of the cave paintings in the Chauvet Caves, the world-famous lions, horses and deer in the underground chambers have been dated to 30,000 to 32,000 years, according to the latest investigations. The fragments of Abri Castanet may be 5000 years older, although a margin of error of several hundred to a thousand years is not uncommon with this type of dating. The drawings in the Chauvet caves also belong to the Aurignacian culture.

In February of this year, several sources reported cave drawings that may be even older, and may have been made by Neanderthals. In a cave near the Spanish city of Malaga, researchers found primitive petroglyphs of seals. Charcoal remains were found nearby, which were found to be between 43,500 and 42,300 years old. The charcoal may have been used in making the drawings. However, the petroglyphs themselves are not dated yet.

More about cave drawings on Science24:

  • Arguing over cave drawings
  • Louvre for cavemen