WASHINGTON — A massive block of limestone in France contains what scientists believe are the earliest known engravings of wall art dating back some 37,000 years, according to a study published Monday.
The 1.5 metric ton ceiling piece was first discovered in 2007 at Abri Castanet, a well known archeological site in southwestern France which holds some of the earliest forms of artwork, beads and pierced shells.
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," White told AFP.
"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 horses to "vulvar imagery" that appears to represent female sex organs, carved into the low ceiling that rose between 1.5 to two meters (yards) from the floor, within reach of the hunters.
The work is less sophisticated than 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.
In contrast, the engravings and paintings at Castanet, which carbon dating showed were about 37,000 years old, are 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, 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."
However, even though the artwork is vastly different, archeologists believe the artists came from the same Aurignacian culture which comprised the first modern humans in Europe, replacing the Neanderthals. They lived from 40,000 years ago until about 28,000 years ago.
"Early Aurignacian humans functioned, more or less, like humans today," said White.
"They had relatively complex social identities communicated through personal ornamentation, and they practiced sculpture and graphic arts."
Co-authors on the paper came from leading archeology labs and universities in France and Britain.
In a separate study published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, French scientists described the paintings at Chauvet as "the oldest and most elaborate ever discovered."
Those finding were based on an analysis -- called geomorphological and chlorine-36 dating -- of the rock slide surfaces around what is believed to be the cave's only entrance.
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