Archaeologists Discover 38,000-Year-Old Animal Art

Aurochs engraved on a limestone slab from Abri Blanchard in southwestern France. P. Jugie/Musée National de la Préhistoire

One of the world's first nature pictures was a wild cow. A team of archaeologists found the earliest known depiction of an animal on a slab of rock in Southwestern France. According to a research paper published in the journal, Quaternary International, in January, the artifact was created by the Aurignacians, the first humans to migrate from Africa to Western Eurasia between 40,000 and 50,000 years ago. This piece of ancient art, found at a rock shelter in the Vézère Valley, tells us that some of the earliest people on earth made time in their busy schedules to create art and incorporated it into their daily lives.

The engraving is of an aurochs, a wild cow that is the ancestor of all domestic cattle but is now extinct, according to livestock reporter and author Hannah Velten. New York University professor of anthropology Randall White, who led the expedition, says its hind and front legs were carved around lines of dots that were probably used to guide the artist or represent something abstract like the animal's spirit.

The image may soon become graduate student Claudine Gravel-Miguel's next tattoo. The archaeology student helped excavate the rock on which the engraving was found: a 17 inches by 22 inches split slab of limestone found in 2012 by White's team. "We saw dots on the block, and it was pretty clear that those were not natural," she says.

The archaeologists confirmed that the well-preserved artifact is 38,000 years old—around 1,000 years older than any other known animal engravings. Unlike most Aurignacian art, which was created in a religious sanctuary set apart from living spaces, this artifact was found next to tools involved in making knives, butchering animals and drying skins. "It shows that art was a part of their daily life," says Clark. "Not something restricted to one segment of the population or one group, but everyone had access to it."

While the archaeologists are excited about the discovery, there is still much to learn about the Aurignacians. At least 20,000 years before the first domesticated animals, the Aurignacians were hunter-gatherers who lived in ice age Europe, and eventually supplanted Neanderthals. "Little evidence exists for art or symbolic behavior from the Neanderthals," White says. "Occasionally, you'll find a site with a shell in it or some sort of curiosity, but they were not systematic [in creating art] like the Aurignacians."

While the Neanderthals were large human-like creatures with "craggy brow ridges" and a "stocky physique," the Aurignacians were similar in appearance to the creatures you see lingering over their Facebook posts at Starbucks. "If one of them knocked on the door and came in and sat here you would not be at all shocked by their physique." White says. "They're us."

These early humans were cave-dwellers with a "complex and sophisticated control of fire" says White, and "the beginning of architectural features." They put fireplaces in key parts of their caves to better retain heat, and they gouged holes in cave walls to hang "driplines" for skins to dry.

The valleys and plateaus surrounding the Abri Blanchard excavation site made it an especially attractive site for Aurignacians. "They weren't idiots," says Sarah Ranlett, the associate director in charge of site logistics. "They picked a really good place to live, where they could have functional shelter with the least amount of effort."

The site also indicates that the Aurignacians also connected to a much larger community. The different kinds of flint found around the site indicate that they were involved in long-range trade. Raw materials found at Abri Blanchard had come from sites around 50 miles away—or a three-to-four-day walk. Beads from around 250 miles and seashells from more than 350 miles away were also found among the early human's artifacts.

White's long-term goal is to build a picture of what this region would have looked like while the Aurignacians lived there and to understand the culture and behavior of the early humans. "We're going to launch into a 10-year project to look for new sites that have never been excavated before, and to return to additional older sites to see what's left," he says. "It's a tradeoff between finding a site where people have excavated before, but we know has a lot of artifacts, or looking at a site that nobody has touched, but there are no artifacts eroding out of it, and it could be nothing," Clark says.

As the archaeologists continue to excavate, they find answers and come up with many more questions.