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Aurignac Cave

Aurignacian Culture Type-Site
Excavation, Tools, Cave Art

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Aurignacian Type-Site

Aurignac Cave (Grotte d'Aurignac) is a famous archaeological site in the Haute-Garonne department of southwestern France.

It was here, during the late 19th century, that the earliest evidence (tools, artifacts) of early modern humans, was found.

As a result, Aurignac Cave became the type-site of the culture, which in 1906 was named the Aurignacian by Henri Breuil (1877-1961) and Émile Cartailhac (1845-1921).

In recognition of its contribution to paleoanthropology and Stone Age culture, the Grotte d'Aurignac was declared a national Historic Monument of France in May 26, 1921.


The Aurignac cave is located at the northern end of the town of Aurignac, in the northern foothills of the Pyrenees, in the centre of the region of Franco-Cantabrian art, an area of great cultural activity during the Upper Paleolithic.

The cave complex consists of at least two rock shelters - Abri Lartet and Aurignac II - although archaeologists believe they are part of a much larger set of shelters.

Other famous caves in the Haute-Garonne include: Marsoulas and Montespan - the latter famous for its 'headless bear'.

Discovery and Excavation

Aurignac Cave was discovered in 1852 by Jean-Baptiste Bonnemaison, a quarry worker from Aurignac.

His discovery was reported to paleontologist Édouard Lartet (1801-71), who began an investigation of the site in 1860.

His excavation (1860-63) yielded a large quantity of Stone Age fossils, advanced stone tools and other artifacts, including finely knapped flints, antler and bone carvings, fossilized human bone, as well as the bones of extinct megafauna, such as mammoths, cave bears, woolly rhinoceros, horse, bison and reindeer.

A quantity of Chalcolithic pottery was also unearthed, although this dated to the later Neolithic period.

Lartet - who also investiated Le Moustier, the type-site of the Mousterian culture, and also La Madeleine, the type site of the Magdalenian culture - wrote up his researches at Abri Lartet in the journal article 'Nouvelles Recherches sur la coexistence de l’homme et des grands mammifères fossiles réputés caractéristiques de la dernière époque géologique' ('New Research on the Coexistence of Man and the Large-Mammal Fossils Reputedly Characteristic of the Last Geologic Period') (1861).

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Later Excavations

Excavations at Aurignac Cave, conducted by Lartet and later archaeologists, established a sequence of three separate layers of deposits.

For more about the chronology of Upper Paleolithic culture in Europe, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).

Aurignacian Culture

The Aurignacian is the first tool industry of the Upper Paleolithic. It was created by Cro-Magnons - the first modern H. sapiens to arrive in Europe.

It was preceded by the Ahmarian and Châtelperronian cultures of the Middle Paleolithic, and followed by the Gravettian culture which lasted from 30,000 to 20,000 BC.

Cro-Magnons left Africa from about 100,000 BC and - according to evidence found at Mandrin Cave, in France - arrived in Europe about 55,000 BC.

So these early Aurignacians were in France for at least 20,000 years before they occupied Aurignac Cave. But the latter was where the first evidence of their arrival was discovered, hence its designation as the Aurignacian type site.

Stone Tools

Aurignacian stone tools were archaeology's first 'Mode 4 technology'. The Aurignacian toolkit is characterized as follows:

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Prehistoric Art

There is no special mention of any cave art at Aurignac, although this is not unusual. The Aurignacians tended to decorate deep caves, which they used as sanctuaries rather than communal shelters.

By far the greatest cave painting created during the Aurignacian era in Europe is the series of black drawings at the Chauvet Pont d'Arc Cave in the French Ardèche Valley. This cave was unoccupied, save for a small group of artists.

It was the deep caves, often decorated initially during the Aurignacian, that became the great showcases of Magdalenian art in France and Spain.

Famous prehistoric art belonging to the Aurignacian culture includes:

Collection of Artifacts and Fossils

Many objects from the cave, formerly part of the paleolithic collections at the National Archeology Museum and the Museum of Toulouse, are now on display at the Aurignacian museum in Aurignac town.


(1) "Cave Art: A Guide to the Decorated Ice Age Caves of Europe." Bahn, P.G., 2007: Published by Frances Lincoln ltd, 2007. ISBN 0711226555, 9780711226555
(2) "Aurignacian". Wood, Bernard, ed. (2011). Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Human Evolution. John Wiley. ISBN 9781444342475
(3) "Out of Africa: modern human origins special feature: the spread of modern humans in Europe". Hoffecker, JF (September 2009). Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 106 (38): 16040–5.

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