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Prehistoric Aurochs Image Opens Up A New View Of Human Evolution

A limestone slab engraved with an image of an aurochs, or extinct wild cow, discovered at Abri Blanchard in 2012.
Ph. Jugie
Musée National de Préhistoire
A limestone slab engraved with an image of an aurochs, or extinct wild cow, discovered at Abri Blanchard in 2012.

We Homo sapiens have been artists throughout much of our prehistory, creating paintings, engravings and statues, often representing animals.

Now, a team of researchers has described a new discovery from the rock shelter Abri Blanchard in the Dordogne region of France that features a striking image of an aurochs engraved on a limestone slab.

The date the image was made is as compelling as the art itself: 38,000 years ago, during the Upper Paleolithic's Aurignacian. That's older than the famous images at both Lascaux and Chauvet caves, also in France.

The find is reported in an article published online in late January by R. Bourrillon and co-authors in the journal Quaternary International.

Painting, engraving, and bas-relief sculpture were uncovered and studied at Abri Blanchard in excavations before World War I, so this new discovery (made in 2012, though only now written up) adds fascinating new depth to an already-analyzed site.

Several things — beside the date — make this image especially compelling to contemplate.

First is the aurochs itself. According to Hannah Velten writing in the volume Cow from the Reaktion Books Animal Series, "the aurochs gained the dubious honor of being the first documented case of extinction (the second being the dodo)." By the 15th century, they were found only in Poland's Jaktorowski Royal Forest — and the last individual died there in 1627.

All domestic cattle throughout the world are descended from the aurochs, Velten notes.

Bourrillon et al. write that the aurochs was only occasionally hunted at Abri Blanchard, where reindeer were much more populous.

So why did the artist select this animal to portray?

Archaeologist Randall White of New York University, second author on the article, answered via email:

"Reindeer is the dominant faunal species in the site with aurochs being a bit player. We can only imagine the interest on the part of Aurignacian engravers, perhaps the massive size of the animal.

The aurochs was one of the largest herbivores in late Pleistocene Europe, nearly 2 meters high at the withers and weighing 1,500 to 2,000 pounds. Aurignacians may have had some special symbolic relationship with aurochs as a bovid (aurochs or bison) horn-core sculpted into a phallus, was found in one of the fireplaces at Blanchard in the old excavations."

Second, the punctuation marks. These, Bourrillon et al. state in their article, were made with a single tool all at once, not over a long period — so they don't represent a note-keeping or calendar system.

But why are the researchers so sure of this?

The punctuations are joined into a line by scraping, in part to form the rear part of the aurochs, White said. "It seems logical that they were put in place shortly before that line formation took place," he said.

That strikes me as reasonable speculation, if hypothetical.

Third, the style of engraving (and its content) seems to have a lot in common with that used in two other regions famous for prehistoric art, one also in France and the other in Germany. This "graphic convergence across three regions," as the authors put it, points to possible social ties across widespread areas quite long ago in human evolution, an ethic of sharing of ideas and aesthetics.

Last — and in some ways the coolest of all — the slab was found in an area of "intense occupation," that is, in a living area occupied by our ancestors, and not in some inaccessible chamber.

"The boundary that we often draw," Bourrillon et al. write, "between the ritual and symbolic (religion and art) on one hand, and the quotidian on the other, is a modern imposition."

White underscored for me that the significance of this point is "quite simply that imagery was part of everyday life."

"These people were heavily adorned with animal teeth, shell ornaments, ivory beads and bracelets; and the huge amount of red ocher in the sites may imply body and hair painting.

With all this emphasis on representation, the ever-presence of engraving, painting and sculpture comes as no surprise."

This newly described aurochs image — and the perspective about Aurignacian culture that flows from it — reinforces our knowledge that even 38,000 years ago, human beings were concerned with vastly more than just their survival.

In fact, just on Friday, a second article in Quaternary International was published by White and his colleagues, describing artists' renderings on 16 limestone blocks dated also to 38,000 at Abri Cellier, a rock shelter in the same valley as Abri Blanchard. Animal images on these blocks include the ibex, horse and mammoth.

These new discoveries, White et al. write, fall "firmly within the range of styles, subjects and techniques that we have already observed in the Dordogne region."

That's even more evidence to support the conclusion that our ancestors' everyday lives were threaded through with art and creativity.

Barbara J. King is an anthropology professor emerita at the College of William and Mary. She often writes about the cognition, emotion and welfare of animals, and about biological anthropology, human evolution and gender issues. Barbara's most recent book on animals is titledHow Animals Grieve, and her forthcoming book,Personalities on the Plate: The Lives and Minds of Animals We Eat, will be published in March.You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter:@bjkingape

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. With a long-standing research interest in primate behavior and human evolution, King has studied baboon foraging in Kenya and gorilla and bonobo communication at captive facilities in the United States.