Anthropologists Uncover 38,000 Year-Old Engraved Image; Earliest Known Imagery In Western Eurasia

An international team of anthropologists has uncovered a rare engraving – a 38,000-year-old engraved image in a southwestern French rockshelter. For the uninitiated, rockshelter is a shallow opening that’s similar to a cave at the base of a cliff. It’s also commonly referred to as a rockhouse, abri and a bluff shelter.

Limestone slab engraved with the image of an aurochs, or extinct wild cow, discovered at Abri Blanchard in 2012 (Musée national de Préhistoire collections – photo MNP – Ph. Jugie).

38,000-year-old engraved image uncovered

The findings have been published in the journal Quaternary International and focus on the Aurignacian culture of early humans who existed approximately 43,000 years ago. Art from Aurignacian culture is of keen interest to anthropologists since it offers a window into the lives and minds of its makers and also into the societies that they created.

“The discovery sheds new light on the regional patterning of art and ornamentation across Europe at a time when the first modern humans to enter Europe dispersed westward and northward across the continent”, said Randall White, the anthropologist who led the excavation in France’s Vezere Valley. The engraving bears a complex image of an aurochs (wild cow) surrounded by rows of dots. The anthropologists had evacuated the slab in early 20th century. But the methodical exploration of remaining deposits began only in 2011, resulting in the discovery in 2012. “Following their arrival from Africa, groups of modern humans settled in 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”, adds Randall.

Abri Blanchard and Abri Castanet are among the oldest sites in Eurasia bearing artifacts of human symbolism. These sites offer rich information for anthropologists in the form of personal ornaments, including pierced animal teeth, pierced shells, ivory and soapstone beads, engravings, and paintings on limestone slabs.