Dig This: Researchers Found a 38,000-Year-Old Engraving in France

Excavated from a rock shelter, the image of an aurochs covered in dots was made by the Aurignacians, the earliest group of modern humans in Europe

Rock Art
The limestone carving of an aurochs Musée national de Préhistoire collections

The Abri Blanchard rock shelter in the Vézère Valley of southwestern France was first excavated in the early 20th century, and those original digs revealed artifacts from some of the earliest modern humans to migrate into Europe. Now, roughly 100 years later, researchers have found something else in the cave—a broken slab of limestone with the image of an aurochs, an extinct ancestor of modern cattle—etched into it and partially covered in dots, dating about 38,000 years ago.

According to a press release, the carving represents one of the earliest instances of imagery found in western Eurasia. It’s believed that the carving was produced by a member of the Aurignacian culture, which existed in Europe around 43,000 to 33,000 years ago, and was the first group of Homo sapiens to make it into the continent. “Following their arrival from Africa, groups of modern humans settled into western and Central Europe, showing a broad commonality in graphic expression against which more regionalized characteristics stand out,” says Randall White, an anthropologist from New York University who led the excavations at Abri Blanchard and its sister cave Abri Castanet. “This pattern fits well with social geography models that see art and personal ornamentation as markers of social identity at regional, group, and individual levels.”

Megan Gannon at Live Science reports that Aurignacian stone carvings found around the region include images of what appear to be vulvas, horses, cats and rings. While the original expeditions between 1910 and 1912 more or less cleared out Abri Blanchard, White believed there might be more to discover from the cave, especially since excavation techniques were much different a century ago.

He was right. In 2011, he and his team excavated the cave and looked through the piles of dirt left behind by the previous excavations. Gannon reports that they found hundreds of stone tools, reindeer bones, a decorated bone, an ivory bead and a pierced fox tooth that was likely used as a decoration. The research was recently published in the journal Quaternary International.

White tells Jen Viegas at Seeker that the "abundance of personal ornaments, many from exotic raw materials from the Pyrenees, the Atlantic shore and the Mediterranean coast" suggests that Abri Blanchard could have served as a meeting place for trade, ritual and storytelling.

The aurochs, like the one found on the limestone slab, is a common theme in Aurignacian art, including at Chauvet Cave, which contains the oldest known figurative art in the world. White tells Viegas that the culture may have had some special relationship with the aurochs, and that the animal might have been a sign of virility, pointing out that an earlier excavation in the cave found one of the animal’s horns carved into the shape of a phallus.

Another mystery: the symmetrical rows of dots that appear on the limestone along with the animal carving. “These took considerable effort to produce and they preceded the engraving of the animal itself,” White tells Viegas. “What precisely these arrangements are an abstraction of is unclear.”

At Chauvet Cave, large dots created using the palm of the hand are used to represent animals like bison in a very early use of pointillism.

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