A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Rare representations of birds and unknown animals shown with elongated muzzles and open mouths are among more than 200 newly discovered Upper Palaeolithic engravings in Cussac cave in southern France. The site is also unique for the size of the figures--some are 13 feet in length--which include mammoths, rhinoceros, deer, and, in greater numbers, horses and bison. Also depicted are women in outline and schematic vulvas. Most of the figures were engraved with stone tools, some simply by finger, in the clay on the cave walls; there are no paintings.
The find was made last September by Marc Delluc, a caver prospecting in the Buisson-de-Cadouin area of the Dordogne region. After a few dozen yards inside the cave, he found the passage blocked by stones. Removing them, he revealed a large gallery beyond with ancient engravings on its walls. Following a second visit, Delluc notified authorities and by late November the ministry of culture had declared the site a historic monument.
It seems likely that the Cussac engravings were made during the Gravettian period (28,000-22,000 years ago), named for the nearby site La Gravette. Early in the twentieth century, archaeologist Denis Peyrony excavated in the entrance of Cussac and found Gravettian tools--but Peyrony had no idea of the prehistoric art deeper in the cave. The date is consistent with the age of engravings at another cave, Pech Merle, which, according to Palaeolithic art specialist Michel Lorblanchet, are similar to those at Cussac.
Remains of at least five people were discovered in three places in the cave. Bones of an adolescent were found in a depression in the cave floor thought to be a hollow originally dug out by a bear for hibernation. In another hollow were remains of at least three adults, but, oddly enough, no skulls. Elsewhere there was a nearly complete skeleton of an adult lying on its stomach. Neolithic people often placed their dead in caves, but there are no associated artifacts, such as pottery, with the burials that would point to a Neolithic date. One of the bone deposits may lie on a bed of red ochre, which would be more characteristic of an Upper Palaeolithic burial. Direct dating of the remains will be done to determine if they are contemporary with the engravings.
This is the third important cave art find in France within a decade, following the painted caves of Cosquer (1992) and Chauvet (1994). It suggests that there is even more such prehistoric art to be found.
Interested in touring France's prehistoric caves with Contributing Editor Paul Bahn?