Raphaelle Bourrillon
The engravings were found in a block of limestone in a rock shelter which may have been the shelter's low ceiling.
updated 5/14/2012 5:18:11 PM ET 2012-05-14T21:18:11

Multiple engraved and painted images of female sexual organs, animals and geometric figures discovered in southern France are believed to be the first known wall art.

Radiocarbon dating of the engravings, described in the latest Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reveals that the art was created 37,000 years ago. This makes them slightly older than the world’s earliest known cave art, found in Chauvet Cave, southeastern France.

PHOTOS: Early Europe Art Depicts Female Sex Organs

Since this site, Abri Castanet in southern France, is very close to Chauvet, it is likely that the artists in both cases came from what is known as the Aurignacian culture, which existed until about 28,000 years ago.

“Abri Castanet has long been recognized as one of the oldest sites in Eurasia with evidence for human symbolism in the form of hundreds of personal ornaments (such as) pierced animal teeth, pierced shells, ivory and soapstone beads, engravings and paintings on limestone slabs,” lead author Randall White told Discovery News.

White, a New York University anthropology professor, added that the artwork “is associated with members of some of the first modern human populations to leave Africa, dispersing into Eurasia, replacing the preceding Neanderthals.”

White and his international team analyzed the engravings, which were made with ochre on a 3,307-pound block of limestone found in a rock shelter occupied by a group of Aurignacian reindeer hunters. The researchers believe the limestone was once the shelter’s low ceiling, which later collapsed.

The engravings include depictions of “the back end of a horse,” according to the researchers, as well as multiple images of the female vulva. Other “zoomorphic” and “geometric” engravings are included, along with additional images of female sexual organs.

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.

The discovery in many respects leads to more questions than answers, given the subject matter of the artwork.

“While there are animal figures, the dominant motif is that considered to represent abstract female vulvas,” White said, mentioning that other interpretations could be possible.

Additional Aurignacian artwork, however, clearly represents female sexual organs. The Venus of Hohle Fels, for example, is an ivory figurine dating to at least 35,000 to 40,000 years ago, according to Nicholas Conard, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Tubingen who reported the find.

The figurine, found in a southwestern Germany cave, depicts a woman with what Conard told Discovery News were “large projecting breasts” and a pronounced vulva and labia majora visible between the woman’s open legs.

NEWS: Earliest American Art: Mammoth on Mammoth

Additional so-called “Venus figurines” from the Gravettian period have been found, so there may have been a shared cultural tradition.

“All place an emphasis on sexual attributes and lack emphasis on the legs, arms, face and head, made all the more noticeable in this case (the Venus of Hohle Fels) because a carefully carved, polished ring — suggesting that the figurine was once suspended as a pendant — exists in place of a head,” Conard said.

The abstract female vulvas depicted at Abri Castanet appear to follow that style. It remains unclear if men or women created the depictions or if they were used for ritualistic purposes.

White concluded, “The discovery, in concert with the rich records of approximately the same time period from southern Germany, northern Italy and southeastern France, raises anew the question of the evolutionary and adaptive significance of graphic representation and its role in the successful dispersal of modern human populations out of Africa into Western Eurasia and beyond.”

© 2012 Discovery Channel

Explainer: Ancient rock art from around the world

  • AP

    Even 15,000 years ago, humans were compelled to decorate the interior walls of their abodes. Back then, in the Stone Age, home was often no more than a cave, but the artwork was sophisticated and sublime. The Altamira Cave in northern Spain contains some of Europe's best known and best preserved Paleolithic rock art, including the painted ceiling shown here. Scholars consider the paintings, primarily of bison and other wildlife, masterpieces of creative genius. Click the "Next" label to see seven more examples of rock art from around the world.

    — By John Roach, msnbc.com contributor

  • Lascaux cave drawings threatened by fungus

    Pierre Andrieu  /  AP

    The famed Lascaux caves in France have been shuttered since 1963, when green algae and mosses began to cover the 15,000- to 17,000 year-old murals of bulls, horses, and other creatures. The deterioration was blamed on chemical reactions with visitors' breath. As a consolation, the government built a replica cavern nearby, which remains a top tourist draw. But the spread of fungus in the original cave hasn't stopped, thanks in part to global warming, researchers said at a recent meeting about the artwork. Ideas to fight the fungus include the use of biocides and an elaborate climate control system.

  • Uranium traces help date oldest rock art in Britain

    Sergio Ripoli

    Rock art in Britain appears to date back at least 12,800 years, according to scientists who used minute traces of radioactive uranium in a limestone crust to date the rock art. The crusts formed over the etchings of bison and other creatures, so the dates set a minimum age for the work. The finding helps round out a picture of Ice Age Ice-Age hunter-gatherers occupying the caves each spring to find horse, reindeer, and other wildlife for meat, hides, and fur. This overdrawn image here shows a stag engraving in the biggest cavern at Creswell Crags.

  • Earliest oil paintings in Afghan cave

    National Research Institute for

    The world's earliest known oil paintings are found in a series of intact - albeit weather-beaten and looter-ravaged - caves in Afghanistan's Bamiyan Valley. Archaeologists dated the paintings to the mid-seventh century, which is several hundred years before the painting technique emerged in Europe. The murals depict Buddhas and mythical creatures and were made with what appear to be walnut and poppy-seed oils, scientists say. The site of the paintings is perhaps more infamously known as where the Taliban blew up two giant stone Buddha statues in 2001.

  • South African rock reveals history of the San

    Image: Aerial view of Nyirangongo
    Alexander Joe  /  AFP/Getty Images

    Painted walls and overhangs in South Africa are helping scholars piece together the millennia-long history of the San, a group of hunter-gatherers who became extinct after European colonization in the 19th century. More than 40,000 paintings in 500 rock shelters have been discovered. They depict animals such as the eland - a type of spiral-horned antelope - and hunters and are thought to represent religious beliefs of the San. Researchers hope that by firmly dating the paintings, they can see how the people changed over time.

  • Rock depicts supernova

    John Barentine  /  Apache Point Observatory

    The star symbol right of center in this rock carving may represent the fiery death of an ancient star in the year 1006. If so, it would be the first North American representation of a celestial event, previously known from astronomers' records in Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. The supernova of 1006 was likely as bright as the quarter moon, according to computer simulations. This piece of rock art was discovered in the White Tank Regional Park outside of Phoenix, Ariz.

  • Rock art under siege in Nevada

    Debra Reid  /  AP File

    Figures and shapes etched into rocks all around Nevada hint at stories of people who roamed the land centuries to millennia ago. But rock art enthusiasts fear vandals and looters will destroy the etchings before scientists have sufficient tools and knowledge to comprehend the historical record. The problem, according to groups mobilizing to protect the ancient artwork, is Nevada's rapid growth, which is putting people much closer to sites such as the petroglyphs shown here in the Pah Rah Mountain Range near Reno.

  • Gas caught between rock and an art place

    Douglas C. Pizac  /  AP

    The more than 10,000 carvings and paintings of bulls, sheep, hunters, the hunted, warriors and wildlife all etched and stroked onto the cliff walls along Utah's Nine Mile Canyon make up what is known as the world's longest art gallery. The rock art dates to between A.D. 700 and 1300 and archaeologists believe it is the creation of the Fremont people, who were the ancestors of modern-day Utes. But the rock isn't the only draw to the remote stretch of Utah: It's also rich in oil and gas. A rush to exploit the natural resources has raised concerns that dust kicked up by industrial truck traffic could harm the artwork.


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments