Archeologists have dusted off some of the oldest cave paintings ever discovered in Western Eurasia, drawn in an artistic style that's 38,000 years ahead of its time.
The paintings were discovered during a new excavation by anthropologists from New York University at the well-established archaeological site of Abri Cellier in Vézère Valley, France. Their study was recently published in the journal Quaternary International.
Their work revealed 16 decorated limestone blocks with a radiocarbon date of 38,000 years. This small glimpse into the creativity of Europe’s oldest human culture, the Aurignacian, is all the more fascinating due to the use of paint dots to compose the illustration. The researchers say there are at least three mammoth illustrations (below) among the new finds, as well as images of aurochs (wild cows) and horses. It’s believed they were by painted onto the palm of the hand or fingers and then transferred onto the cave wall.
"We're quite familiar with the techniques of these modern artists," excavation leader Randall White said in a statement. "But now we can confirm this form of image-making was already being practiced by Europe's earliest human culture, the Aurignacian."
A photograph and a graphic representation of the limestone slab depicting a mammoth in profile view. R Bourrillon/New York University
The researchers pointed out how the style of these paintings mimics the artistic techniques adopted by many modernist artistic styles, such as Pointillists and Post-Impressionists like Georges Seurat and Vincent van Gogh.
The drawings might look more like kindergarten fridge-mounted artworks rather than modern masterpieces to our eyes. However, this type of figurative drawing is exceptional for this period and marks an intriguing insight into the development of early human culture.
"It’s not so much the final effect that we found interesting, it’s the conception of it – the use of individual points to form the body or the outline of a figure. If you look carefully at the aurochs, there’s really a significant control of the line and this is very early when people are really just beginning to grapple with the production of images," White told The Independent.
“They have mastered some of the fundamental aspects of line and shape, but there’s clearly a long way to go in terms of precise reproductions.”
Excavation at Abri Cellier started in 1927 when archeologists discovered 15 engraved limestone blocks thought to be from a similar period to these recent finds. However, none of these are thought to be the oldest examples of human artwork in the world. In Indonesia and Australia, anthropologists have found non-figurative cave art that dates from around 40,000 years ago, made by blowing paint around the edge of hands that were pressed against the walls like a stencil.