The earliest modern humans that arrived in Western Europe are estimated to have migrated there from Africa about 45,000 years ago. And while they were already making tools and using fire, they were also making art.
The Stadel lion-man sculpture — found in Germany and dated to between 35,000 and 40,000 years ago — and the 40,800-year-old red disk from a cave in El Castillo, Spain, are among the oldest expressions of art found in Europe. These two may have some company now in the ancient history of European art, with another finding in France.
In a paper published this week in the journal Quaternary International, an international team of anthropologists describe a limestone slab found in a collapsed rock shelter in the Vézère Valley of southwest France that dates back 38,000 years. Abri Blanchard, the site where the slab was found, has previously yielded other precious findings that have shed light on the nature of life in the Aurignacian period, which was from about 43,000 to 33,000 years ago.
The limestone slab has an engraved image of an aurochs — an extinct wild cow — surrounded by rows of dots. The site it was found in had been previously excavated in the first half of the 20th century, but work on studying it in detail was started again in 2011 by a team led by New York University anthropologist Randall White. The aurochs engraving was found in 2012.
“Following their arrival from Africa, groups of modern humans settled into western and Central Europe, showing a broad commonality in graphic expression against which more regionalized characteristics stand out. This pattern fits well with social geography models that see art and personal ornamentation as markers of social identity at regional, group, and individual levels,” White said in a statement.