Traces of what could be the world's oldest known cave paintings have been found in northern Italy. Today, archaeologists announced that they have discovered stone slabs bearing images of an animal and a half-human, half-beast figure that date to between 32,000 and 36,500 years ago. Cave art experts say the new paintings bolster other evidence that humans engaged in sophisticated symbolic expression much earlier than once thought. "This is an extremely exciting discovery," says archaeologist Randall White of New York University.
The painted slabs were discovered last year in Fumane Cave, northwest of Verona, which has yielded stone tools and other evidence of occupation by early humans. Apparently, the slabs had fallen from the cave roof and become embedded in floor sediments. Paleontologist Alberto Broglio of the University of Ferrara, who co-directs the dig with geologist Mauro Cremaschi at the University of Milan, says that the paintings were covered with a thin layer of calcite that made the red ochre difficult to see.
This summer an Italian art restorer removed much of the calcite. Although the team has not yet deciphered the images on three of the slabs, the other two appear to depict a four-legged beast and an 18-centimeter-tall human figure with the head of an animal--which Broglio says is similar to images often seen in more recent caves and called "sorcerers" by cave art experts.
The slabs lay in sediments containing plant and animal remains that had been radiometrically dated to between 32,000 and 36,500 years old. The current record holder for ancient images is the Grotte Chauvet in southern France (Science, 12 February 1999, p. 920). "The Grotte Chauvet has shown that we already had a very elaborated art" by 32,000 years ago, says cave art expert Michel Lorblanchet of the University of Toulouse in France. With the new findings, he says, "we now have confirmation."