Abri Castanet Engravings
Dating, Significance of Oldest Cave Art in France.

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Circular Engraving at Abri Castanet
(c.35,000 BCE) Believed to be the
oldest art in France.

Abri Castanet Engravings (c.35,000 BCE)


Abri Castanet Rock Shelter
Rock Art
Related Articles

To understand how the engravings at Abri Castanet fit into the evolution of Stone Age culture, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 2.5 million BCE).

Aurignacian Art
(40,000-25,000 BCE)
Gravettian Art
(25,000-20,000 BCE)
Solutrean Art
(20,000-15,000 BCE)
Magdalenian Art
(15,000-10,000 BCE)


In 2007, archeologists who were examining part of the collapsed roof of the Abri Castanet rock shelter in the Commune de Sergeac, Dordogne, discovered a cache of rock engravings and abstract signs on an ochre-stained block of limestone. The engraved circle symbols, thought to represent female genitalia, have been dated to about 35,000 BCE, ranking them alongside the oldest Franco-Cantabrian cave art of the region. Only the El Castillo cave paintings (c.39,000 BCE) and the Altamira cave paintings (c.34,000 BCE) come close, while the more sophisticated Chauvet cave paintings (c.30,000 BCE) are some 5,000 years younger. At any rate, it now seems that Abri Castanet is home to the earliest art in France, and this discovery underlines the creative capacity of anatomically modern man during the early era of Aurignacian art (40,000-25,000 BCE). Compare the alleged Neanderthal crosshatch rock engraving at Gorham's Cave, Gibraltar (37,000 BCE).

For a comparison with early African art, see the painted animal images on the Apollo 11 Cave Stones (c.25,500 BCE). For contemporaneous work in SE Asia, please see: Sulawesi Cave Art (Indonesia) (c.37,900 BCE).

Abri Castanet Rock Shelter

Abri Castanet - an archeological site in the Vezere valley in the Dordogne region of southwestern France - was first excavated way back in the 1900s. Based on its location - the Lascaux cave complex is only 6 miles away - and its archeology, the rock shelter has long been suspected of being one of the earliest residences of anatomically modern humans in Europe and a possible site of some of the oldest Stone Age art in the region. As a result, in 1994, following the discovery of the cave painting at Chauvet, a team of archeologists led by New York University anthropology professor Randall White began working at the Abri Castanet rock shelter.

Several pictographs and engraved drawings, along with thousands of artifacts left behind by the prehistoric occupants of the shelter, had already been found at Abri Castanet before the Great War. But scientists were unable to ascertain whether or not the decorated blocks of limestone lying on the floor were part of the original (collapsed) ceiling. White's geological analysis has since revealed that this prehistoric art was part of the original vault. In fact White's team has unearthed considerable evidence of artistic activity at the site. It includes a large quantity of pierced snail shells and animal teeth, used as personal ornaments, as well as the fallen blocks of limestone. Unfortunately, none of the blocks can be directly dated because they do not contain the type of organic matter required for radiocarbon analysis.


Then, in 2007, the archeologists turned their attention to another large slab, weighing more than a ton, which had fallen from the roof onto the cave floor. When they cut the stone block into sections in order to remove them from the cave, they found that the underside had been decorated with several petroglyphs including at least one circular engraving, believed to represent a female vulva, as well as several red-ochre paintings. Furthermore, since the engraved and painted undersurface of the slab had been in direct contact with the archeological layer onto which it had fallen - with no accumulation of sediments or other deposits between the layer and the slab - the rock art could be dated by analyzing the organic material in the archeological layer. Accordingly, a series of six molecular filtration tests were conducted on animal bones from the cave floor, which had been crushed by the fallen block. These tests produced a cluster of dates between 35,000 and 34,000 BCE, which makes the engraving the oldest Stone Age art in France.

Moreover, as the female engraving on the new ceiling fragment is stylistically consistent with many others recovered during earlier excavations at Abri Castanet and the adjacent shelter of Abri Blanchard, it also provides a reliable age estimate for the earlier engravings, all of which were discovered in the immediate vicinity.

Abri Castanet Rock Art

The newly cut limestone block was decorated with engravings (interpreted as vulvas and phalluses) as well as cupules, along with a small number of signs painted in red, black or grey and some paintings of horses. This cave art is much primitive and far less sophisticated than the beautiful animal paintings at Chauvet. This is because - unlike Chauvet Cave which was uninhabited, except for a very small group of artists and shamans - the rock shelter at Castanet was decorated by hunter-gatherers who inhabited the cave with their families. For equally primitive art from a contemporaneous site, see: Fumane cave paintings (c.35,000 BCE).


Most archeologists and anthropologists now accept that anatomically modern man arrived in Europe from Africa during the Ice Age, around 40,000 BCE. But until recently, it was believed that the new arrivals needed time to settle in, before creating the wonderful underground galleries at Lascaux (c.17,000 BCE) and Altamira (c.15,000 BCE). But with the discovery of the Swabian Jura carvings - like the Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel (38,000 BCE) - and the parietal art in Chauvet Cave (c.30,000), Fumane Cave in Italy (c.34,000-30,000 BCE), and Abri Castanet, archeologists are now beginning to realize that modern humans must have developed their artistic skills in Africa before coming to Europe - a viewpoint reinforced by the discovery of the Blombos Cave Engravings (c.75,000 BCE), the Diepkloof Eggshell Engravings (c.60,000 BCE) and other finds at Klasies River Cave 1 and the caves at Klein Kliphuis and Wonderwerk.

Related Articles on Prehistoric Engraving

• For more carvings see Grotte des Deux-Ouvertures /Cave of Two Openings.

• For large scale works, see Cussac Cave Engravings (c.25,000 BCE).

• For images of birds, see Roucadour Cave Art (c.24,000 BCE).

• For the oldest open air carvings in Europe, see Coa Valley Engravings in Portugal (22,000 BCE) The oldest open air rock art in Europe.

Le Roc-de-Sers Cave (17,000 BCE)
Benchmark site for Solutrean rock carving, engravings and relief sculpture.

Trois Freres Cave (13,000 BCE)
Famous for an engraved shamanistic figure known as the "Sorcerer".

Roc-aux-Sorciers (c.12,000 BCE)
Contains an outstanding limestone frieze of relief carvings.

Les Combarelles Cave (12,000 BCE)
A major Magdalenian sanctuary famous for its animal engravings.


• For more about prehistoric arts and crafts in France, see: Homepage.

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