Whodunit? Human remains found near these engravings in Cussac Cave may hold clues to the art's meaning.

Stone Age Artists--or Art Lovers--Unmasked?

Archaeologists may be on the way to solving two pivotal mysteries of prehistoric art: Who were the artists, and what was the meaning of their work? Radiocarbon dating of human remains found in the recently discovered Cussac Cave in the Dordogne Valley of southern France indicates that the bones are contemporaneous with beautiful engravings of animals and human figures etched on the cave walls. Although it may be impossible to prove that the remains were the artists themselves, the skeletons may hold clues to who frequented the cave and why it had special significance.

Fragmentary human remains have been found near cave art a few times in the past, but there has been no way of knowing that these were not art lovers, accidental visitors, or squatters from some other period. But Cussac is something special. "For the first time ever, we have ... human skeletons deep in an uninhabited [decorated] cave," says cave art expert Jean Clottes. Archaeologist Randall White of New York University agrees: No other cave "even comes close" to Cussac and its complete burials.

Cussac was discovered by a caver in September 2000, but the French government kept it secret until this July (ScienceNOW, 13 July). The engravings--which include fantasy animals with deformed heads and gaping mouths, and a voluptuous female profile--were provisionally dated to the Gravettian period, based on their stylistic similarity to other cave art. This would make them between 22,000 and 28,000 years old.

Ever since Cussac was found, archaeologists have been holding their breath, waiting to learn the dating results from the skeletons--four or five adults and one adolescent--found in hollows on the cave floor. Preliminary results from three bone samples analyzed by Beta Analytic, a radiocarbon lab in Miami, Florida, found that one of the samples gave a precise date of 25,120 years, plus or minus 120 years--clearly within the Gravettian period. (The other two samples did not give conclusive results.)

Archaeologists led by Norbert Aujoulat of the National Center for Prehistory in Périgueux will now begin a 3-year program to excavate the burials, including the stone tools and other artifacts found with them, as well as study the engravings themselves. "The archaeological context of cave art can provide more clues about the meaning of the art than the art itself," says Clottes.

Still, unless archaeologists find artists' materials ceremonially buried alongside the skeletons, they can only speculate on what connection the humans had to the engravings. If not the artists, they could be "highly regarded individuals put there as a kind of homage," says Clottes. They even might have been miscreants, he speculates, "people who misbehaved in such a dreadful way that they had to be put away as close to the spirits as possible, so they could not come back."

Related sites

Virtual exhibition about the Cussac cave