Cow carved in stone paints picture of Europe’s early human culture

Symbolic dots, style link 38,000-year-old engraving to other famous cave art finds

ancient wild cow stone engraving

CULTURED COW  A 38,000-year-old engraved stone (left), depicting an aurochs, or wild cow, covered with dots, was unearthed at a French rock-shelter. Symbolic elements of Europe’s earliest human culture appear in the engraving, its discoverers say. Drawings of the find (center) and of the aurochs separated from the dots show the scene more clearly.

P. Jugie/Musée National de Préhistoire (photo), R. Bourrillon et al/Quaternary International 2017

This stone engraving of an aurochs, or wild cow, found in a French rock-shelter in 2012, provides glimpses of an ancient human culture’s spread across Central and Western Europe, researchers say.

Rows of dots partly cover the aurochs. A circular depression cut into the center of the animal’s body may have caused the limestone to split in two, says Stone Age art specialist Raphaëlle Bourrillon of the University of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès in France. Radiocarbon dating of animal bones unearthed near the discovery at Abri Blanchard rock-shelter put the engraving’s age at roughly 38,000 years, Bourrillon and colleagues report online January 24 in Quaternary International.

The rock art is similar to some engravings and drawings found at other French and German sites, including the famous Chauvet Cave (SN: 6/30/12, p. 12), and attributed to the Aurignacian culture, which dates to between 43,000 and 33,000 years ago. Like the new find, that art includes rows of dots, depictions of aurochs and various animals shown in profile with a single horn and a long, thin muzzle.

Within a few thousand years of arriving in Europe from Africa, Aurignacian groups developed regional styles of artwork based on images that had deep meaning for all of them, proposes anthropologist and study coauthor Randall White of New York University, who directed the excavation.

Bruce Bower

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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