Oldest engravings by modern man
Dated 35,000 BC
Excavations at Abri Castanet and at other paleolithic caves of a similar age, have led to many new discoveries concerning the behaviours of modern humans during the Aurignacian - the first period of Upper Paleolithic art, and is one reason why the rock shelter is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Named after a local landowner and archaeologist Marcel Castanet, the Abri Castanet rock shelter is located in the Vallon de Castel-Merle, in the Vézère Valley of the Dordogne.
This places Abri Castanet within the zone of Franco-Cantabrian art, which is noted for the similarity of its themes and forms.
A principal feature of the shelter's interior is its collapsed limestone ceiling, which was found to be decorated with engravings and paintings.
They included several hundred personal ornaments, plus a series of engraved or painted limestone slabs bearing images of animals and female body parts.
These discoveries from Abri Castanet as well as other similar finds from the contiguous sites of Abri Blanchard and Abri Reverdit - were carefully studied and documented during early excavations by Castanet, and also by the eminent archaeologists Denis Peyrony and Henri Breuil.
But the scientists were unable to confirm whether the decorated blocks of limestone lying on the floor, were exclusively from the original (collapsed) ceiling or whether they included material brought into the shelter from outside.
More scientific testing was therefore needed to ascertain their provenance and antiquity.
Because of the shelter's Aurignacian artifacts and fossils, and its close proximity (9 km) to the Lascaux Cave complex, it was always suspected of being one of the earliest habitations of modern humans in Europe, and a source of some of the oldest paleolithic art in the region.
As a result, in 1994, following the sensational discoveries at Chauvet Cave, dating to 34,00 BC, a team of archaeologists led by New York University anthropology professor Randall White (who also excavated Abri Cellier), began working at the Castanet site.
In 2007, White's team turned their attention to a particular slab, weighing more than one and a half tons, which had fallen from the roof onto the floor of the shelter.
When they cut the stone block into sections prior to removing it from the cave, they discovered that the underside was decorated with engravings (identified as vulvas and phalluses), along with a small number of signs painted in red, black or grey and some crude red-ochre paintings of horses.
In this case, the engraved and painted undersurface of the slab was in direct contact with the Aurignacian archaeological layer onto which it had fallen, and - more importantly - the weight of the slab had effectively 'sealed' off the rock art from any contamination from other deposits.
Thus the images could be dated simply by analyzing the organic material in the archaeological layer.
Accordingly, samples were taken from animal bones on the cave floor, which had been crushed by the falling slab.
These were examined at the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit (ORAU) in the UK, which produced a series of dates between 35,000 and 34,000 BC.
And since the female engraving on the new ceiling fragment is stylistically consistent with many others found during earlier excavations at Abri Castanet, the Oxford dates also provide a reliable age estimate for the earlier engravings.
The cave art at Abri Castanet is much more primitive than the beautiful animal paintings at Chauvet, but the circumstances are completely different.
Chauvet Cave was uninhabited. Scientists think the cave was occupied only by a small group of artists and shamans.
But the Castanet shelter was inhabited by Aurignacian reindeer hunters and their families - a different Stone Age culture altogether.
The rough etchings of the female anatomy and crude ochre scrawls of horses and other geometric images, were directly associated with everyday life.
To see how the cave art at Abri Castanet fits into the evolution of paleolithic culture, see: Timeline of Prehistoric Art (from 540,000 BC).
For more engravings from the early Upper Paleolithic era in France, see: Grotte des Deux Ouvertures (26,500 BC).
"Context and dating of Aurignacian vulvar representations from Abri Castanet, France." Randall White, et al. PNAS. 109 (22) 8450-8455. (May 14, 2012)