Cave art depicting a horse dates back 12,000 years, say researchers

Drawing of a horse’s head in the Agneux I cave, Rully, Saône-et-Loire, France, bottom right: larger image. Image: Christian Hoyer, Floss working group, University of Tübingen
The drawing of a horse’s head in the Agneux I cave at Rully, Saône-et-Loire, France. Inset is a larger image. Image: Christian Hoyer, Floss working group, University of Tübingen

A 12,000-year-old depiction of a horse’s head hidden by centuries-old graffiti has been revealed by researchers in a cave in eastern France.

The rudimentary head in silhouette – unmistakably that of a horse – dates back to the last Ice Age.

An image in another cave in eastern France of a prehistoric deer has been dated to around the same era.

The works were discovered by archaeologists from the University of Tübingen in Germany.

They have attributed the works to anatomically modern humans.

A group of researchers headed by Professor Harald Floss, from the university’s Department of Early Prehistory and Quaternary Ecology, worked with Spanish colleagues to date the art, using complex new methods.

The Tübingen researchers have been investigating the Paleolithic period in eastern France for more than 20 years. They have focused on southern Burgundy ‒ a region in which Neanderthals and modern humans are likely to have met.

The caves are at Rully, in Départment Saône-et-Loire.

“Because the frequency of palaeolithic sites is particularly high here, researchers have suspected for some time that there would be a cave with paintings in it,” Floss says.

A carved outline of a prehistoric deer or reindeer in the Agneux II cave at, Rully, Saône-et-Loire, France, The top image shows the original photo; the bottom image highlights the outline. Image: Christian Hoyer, Floss working group, University of Tübingen
Carved outline of a prehistoric deer or reindeer in the Agneux II cave, Rully, Saône-et-Loire, France, top: original photo; bottom: outline highlighted. Image: Christian Hoyer, Floss working group, University of Tübingen

For the first time in 150 years of prehistory research in this region, Floss adds, it has now been proven that early modern humans entered the caves there to create art.

In the Grottes d’Agneux, they used stone tools and painting to make images of animals, including the horse and prehistoric deer.

The researchers worked with an expert on prehistoric cave art, Juan Ruiz, of the University of Cuenca in Spain. They analyzed the cave walls using modern scanning techniques.

Because the images had been covered with later graffiti from the 16th to 19th centuries, the archaeologists used special image-processing computer programs to reconstruct the original works underneath the other layers.

They also compiled many individual photos into a photogrammetric documentation of the works in order to give them a more three-dimensional look.

Using carbon-14 dating methods, the archaeologists were able to date charcoal found in the cave – and the creation of the art – as far back as 12,000 years ago – to the Upper Palaeolithic period.

This method measures how much time has passed by the radioactive decay of the carbon-14 isotope originally present in the ancient wood.

Tübingen researchers are investigating the transitional phase from the last Neanderthals to the first anatomically modern humans in Europe.

In the Verpillière I cave in Germolles they found signs of the last Neanderthal culture (Châtelperronien) in Western Europe, and in Saint-Martin-sous-Montaigu, a complex Upper Palaeolithic hunting camp from about 25,000 years ago.

At the same time, they were able to show for the first time that the first modern humans in Europe – of the Aurignacian culture – had settled in the region.

“Early modern humans were guided by rivers as they spread across the continent,” explains Floss.

“They may have migrated here from the east via the Danube and from the south via the Rhône. Our data suggest that Neanderthals and early modern humans could have met here in eastern France.”

Some 600 students have taken part in the many years of Tübingen excavations in France.  Some 30 theses – at the Bachelor’s, Master’s and doctoral levels – have been written about the work there.

Harald Floss, Andreas Pastoors (Eds.): Palaeolithic rock and cave art in Central Europe?, Verlag Marie Leidorf, Rahden, 2018.

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