The Top Four Candidates for Europe’s Oldest Work of Art

The discovery of 37,000-year-old cave art showing female genitalia adds to the list of contenders

Someone painted this rhinoceros
Someone painted this rhinoceros on a wall in France's Chauvet Cave about 30,000 years ago. Image courtesy of Wikicommons

In 1940, a group of teenagers discovered the paintings of bison, bulls and horses adorning the walls of France’s Lascaux Cave. Roughly 17,000 years old, the paintings are Europe’s most famous cave art, but hardly the oldest. This week archaeologists announced finding in another cave in France art dating to about 37,000 years ago, making it a candidate for Europe’s most ancient artwork. Here’s a look at the new discovery and the other top contenders for the title of Europe’s oldest work of art.

Nerja Caves (possibly about 43,000 years ago): In February, José Luis Sanchidrián of Spain’s University of Cordoba declared he had found paintings of seals on stalactites in southern Spain’s Nerja Caves. The paintings themselves have not yet been dated. But if they match the age of charcoal found nearby, then the art might be 43,500 to 42,3000 years old, New Scientist reported. That would make the Nerja Cave art the oldest known in Europe—and the most sophisticated art created by Neanderthals, the hominids that lived in this part of Spain some 40,000 years ago.

Abri Castanet (about 37,000 years ago): In 2007, among the rubble from a collapsed rock shelter at the Abri Castanet site in southwestern France just six miles from Lascaux, archaeologists found an engraved chunk of rock. The engravings on the 4-foot-by-3-foot slab, once part of the rock shelter’s ceiling, depict female genitalia and part of an animal. With the help of radiocarbon dating, Randall White of New York University and colleagues estimate the art was made sometime between 36,940 and 36,510 years ago by the Aurignacians, the modern humans who lived in Europe at this time. The researchers reported their findings this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Venus of Hohle Fels (35,000-40,000 years ago): In Nature in 2009, Nicholas Conrad of Germany’s University of Tübingen described the discovery of a 2-inch figurine carved from a mammoth tusk. The tiny sculpture was recovered from Hohle Fels cave in southern Germany’s Swabian Jura mountain range. The figure depicts a woman with large, exaggerated breasts, buttocks and genitalia. Radiocarbon dated to at least 35,000 years ago, it is the earliest known Venus figurine. Also in the Swabian Jura, archaeologists have found the Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel, an ivory sculpture dated to roughly 30,000 years ago.

Chauvet Cave (about 30,000 years ago): Discovered in 1994, Chauvet Cave’s paintings stand out among Europe’s cave art for their subject matter. In addition to depicting animals that Stone Age people hunted, such as horses and cattle, the wall art shows predators like cave bears, lions and rhinos. The cave’s paintings are exceptionally well preserved because tourists—and the damaging microbes they bring—aren’t allowed inside. But you can still enjoy the breathtaking art by taking a virtual tour of the cave or watching Werner Herzog’s 2011 documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

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