A team of anthropologists has determined that a 1.5 metric ton block of engraved limestone found in a collapsed rock shelter in southern France constitutes the earliest evidence of rock art.
The team has been excavating at the site of the discovery – Abri Castanet – for the past 15 years. Abri Castanet and its sister site Abri Blanchard have long been recognized as being among the oldest sites in Eurasia bearing artifacts of human symbolism.
In 2007, the team discovered an engraved block of limestone in what had been a rock shelter occupied by a group of Aurignacian reindeer hunters. Subsequent geological analysis revealed the ceiling had been about two meters above the floor on which the Aurignacians lived – within arms’ reach.
Using carbon dating, the researchers determined that both the engraved ceiling, which includes depictions of animals and geometric forms, and the other artifacts found on the living surface below were approximately 37,000 years old. The results appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“Early Aurignacian humans functioned, more or less, like humans today,” explained Randall White, a professor of anthropology at New York University and a co-author on the study. “They had relatively complex social identities communicated through personal ornamentation, and they practiced sculpture and graphic arts.”
“This art appears to be slightly older than the famous paintings from the Grotte Chauvet in southeastern France,” Prof. White explained, referring 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.”
“This discovery, combined with others of approximately the same time period in southern Germany, northern Italy, and southeastern France, raises new questions about the evolutionary and adaptive significance of art and other forms of graphic representation in the lives of modern human populations,” Prof. White concluded.