Oldest Known Wall Art Found in France

May 14, 2012 Updated: October 1, 2015
Photograph (L) and drawing ® of an unidentifiable zoomorphic figure painted in red and black. (Raphaëlle Bourrillon)
Photograph (L) and drawing ® of an unidentifiable zoomorphic figure painted in red and black. (Raphaëlle Bourrillon)

The earliest example of wall art has been identified on a massive block of engraved and ochre-stained limestone in southwestern France, making it older than the renowned Chauvet cave paintings found in 1994.

A multi-institutional research team uncovered the collapsed ceiling piece while excavating Abri Castanet in the Dordogne region. “Abri” means “shelter” in French and, like nearby Abri Blanchard, the site was inhabited by stone age people during the Aurignacian period between 37,000 and 28,000 years ago.

The two sites are among the oldest in Eurasia and were used by prehistoric people who created symbolic engravings and ornaments, such as pierced shells and animal teeth, and beads made of ivory and soapstone.

“They had relatively complex social identities communicated through personal ornamentation, and they practiced sculpture and graphic arts,” said study co-author Randall White at New York University in a press release.

Discovered in 2007, the 1.5-tonne (1.65-ton) limestone block was part of a shelter once used by Aurignacian reindeer hunters, when the ceiling would have been about two meters (6 feet 6 inches) above the floor.

Among the engravings are symbols of animals, geometry, and female fertility. Various artifacts were also discovered at the site and all were found to be around 37,000 years old using carbon dating.

“This art appears to be slightly older than the famous paintings from the Grotte Chauvet in southeastern France,” White said.

“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.”

Contemporaneous findings from southeastern France, Germany, and northern Italy suggest that art was a significant part of Aurignacian culture.

The paper was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on May 14.

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