Dating back about 37,000 years, the art consists of engravings made in stone that has since fallen from the ceiling of a cave at Abri Castanet in southwestern France. While not as visually arresting as the more famous cave art found at Chauvet, the Castanet engravings are both older and represent what is very likely an earlier stage in the history of the Aurignacian culture, which spanned 40,000 to about 28,000 years ago. Some of the Chauvet paintings are now confirmed at between 30,000 and 32,000 years ago.
Credit: HTO. A replica of a painting, now in the public domain.
The Castanet engravings are both simpler artistically and were located in the general living area of the cave. The Aurignacian culture that created both the paintings and the engravings is known for is many forms of art. According to New York University anthropology professor Randall White, one of the study's co-authors, the Aurignacians "had relatively complex social identities communicated through personal ornamentation, and they practiced sculpture and graphic arts."
"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," White said in press release issued by NYU.
With more refined archeological techniques, the story of the rise of human symbolic culture is likely to become more complex and more ancient. While there may well have been bursts of cultural creativity in which symbolic advance occurred rapidly, additional findings may also suggest a more steady rise in the story of human art. The study, entitled “Context and dating of Aurignacian vulvar representations from Abri Castanet, France,” appears in the May 14, 2012 edition of PNAS.