A piece of sandstone recovered in France, depicting a horse and four other herbivores, is believed to be 12,000 years old.
The sandstone has been decorated on both sides, with the creator combining his animal illustrations with geometric decoration.
The piece, found in southwestern Angoulême, in the Bordeaux district, is linked to a hunting site associated with the Azilian culture. They were hunter-gatherers who lived in southern France and northern Spain.
The find is described by archaeologists with the French National Archaeological Research Institute (Inrap) as exceptional in the context of Azilian artistic production.
The siliceous sandstone was believed to have been locally sourced and measures 25cm long by 18cm wide. It is about 3cm thick.
Parallel incisions occupy its two edges, leaving a central place for a silhouette, probably of an auroch, an extinct species of cattle.
However, the most visible engraving is that of a headless horse, which occupies half the surface. The rump and the back follow the curves of the natural edge of the stone. Very fine incisions suggest an effort to recreate the coat.
The four legs are represented, but only three hooves are represented (the right hind hoof is missing).
The legs and hooves are very realistic and well created, and seem to show the animal at a walk.
Geometric patterns are superimposed on the horse.
Two other depicted animals are smaller. One is probably a member of the deer family and the other possibly a horse, almost complete but represented in a more schematic style.
On the other side, the incised lines are particularly fine, suggesting the rear half of a horse.
Archaeologists say their study of the object has only just begun, with future work to focus on interpreting the illustrations and dating the piece more precisely.
The site where it was found in Angoulême includes rudimentary fireplaces, bone remains from animals hunted for food, and a flint-sized post.
Arrowheads and cut flints have also been unearthed in the area.
The piece of sandstone will be put on public display briefly in mid-June.