Engravings of fantasy animals with deformed heads and gaping mouths, a bison with a horse's head, the voluptuous profile of a woman: These are the surprises that greeted French cave art experts following last September's discovery of the latest grotte, in France's lush Dordogne Valley. Based on stylistic similarities to other French cave art, experts estimate that the drawings are 22,000 to 28,000 years old--not quite as ancient as the record holder, 32,000 year-old Grotte Chauvet, but still among the oldest cave art known.
French authorities managed to keep news of the Cussac Cave a secret until this month, so that they could first secure the site and put it under government protection. The first details are stunning. More than 150 incised drawings have been found so far, along with four burial sites filled with bones from seven humans, says prehistorian Norbert Aujoulat of the National Center for Prehistory in Périgueux, who heads the research team. The images are cut unusually deep into the relatively soft cave walls, making them more vivid than most cave art.
Some of the engravings resemble those in other French caves dated to the Gravettian period, notes Jean Clottes, France's preeminent cave art expert. However, he says, the fantasy animals give the cave "a special originality ... we can almost talk about a 'Cussac style.'"
Engravings, unlike paintings or charcoal drawings, are impossible to date directly. But results of radiocarbon dating of the skeletons, expected early next month, may tell the story. Researchers have found no pottery or other artifacts with the bones, which argues for great antiquity. On the other hand, human remains are rarely found in decorated caves, and one skeleton is quite well preserved, suggesting it might be more recent. If the remains are as old as the engravings, Clottes says, "that would be great."