More than 30,000 years ago, prehistoric humans in Europe began drawing animals and the occasional human on cave walls, along with handprints stenciled in red ochre. More than 300 cave art sites are known in Western Europe, such as Chauvet and Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain. But only a few have been found in Central Europe. Now a team of French researchers and Romanian spelunkers has announced finding a new painted cave in Romania that could be more than 30,000 years old. The discovery suggests that prehistoric societies across Europe were linked by a common artistic culture.
"We have known almost nothing about cave art in Central Europe," says Jean Clottes, France's leading cave art expert and a cave art adviser to UNESCO and the International Council on Monuments and Sites. "This ties Central Europe" with the rest of the continent.
Previously, Romania could boast only one example of cave art, Cuciulat Cave, which was discovered about 30 years ago and featured drawings of only two animals. Two other painted caves in the Ural Mountains of Russia are also known, the only other examples of cave art this far east. And none of these three caves are thought to be much older than 15,000 years. The new cave, Coliboaia, was also found about 30 years ago in the Apuseni Nature Park in northwestern Romania. But its original discoverers did not see any animal drawings. Indeed, the cave is very difficult to explore because an underground river keeps many of its galleries flooded.
Last September, a group of spelunkers from several Romanian caver clubs, including Tudor Rus, Mihai Besesek, and Roxana Laura Toiciu, were exploring Coliboaia using diving equipment and finally spotted the cave art. Some of the drawings could be reached only by lying in the water with one's head poking just above the surface. About half a dozen images have been found, including a bison, a horse, two bear heads, and two rhinoceros heads, very similar to animal motifs found in Western European caves. Last month, a team of French experts, led by Clottes, visited the cave and verified that the images were indeed examples of prehistoric art. Water probably has destroyed other drawings, Clottes says, but these are above the water line.
From the style of the drawings, Clottes estimates that the images are between 23,000 and 35,000 years old. "If these were found in France or Spain, we would say that they were either Aurignacian or Gravettian," Clottes says, referring to two prehistoric cultures that span this period of time. But until more research is carried out, including attempts to radiocarbon date the drawings—a difficult and controversial procedure—this is just a guess, Clottes adds. A rough idea of their age might be gleaned by radiocarbon dating the numerous bear bones found on the floor of the cave.
Romanian authorities have put the cave under a conservation protection order, and plans are now being hatched to begin a research program at Coliboaia, which will be co-led by Clottes and the president of the Romanian Federation of Speleology, Viorel Traian Lascu. Clottes says the 9˚C temperature and the high waters will make this challenging: "It is very cold and wet in that cave."
This article has been corrected. It originally stated that researchers had to lie down and bob their heads above water in the cave to see the prehistoric art; they need to do this to reach the art, not to actually view it.