The original (above) and the highlighted outline of a prehistoric deer, or reindeer (below), carved on the wall of the Agneux II cave, Rully, Saône-et-Loire.

Cave art seen in Burgandy

The first evidence of modern humans in eastern France, has been revealed with the discovery in the Saône-et-Loire department of the marks they left behind. Their cave art has been found in the Grottes d'Agneux above the commune of Rully in the Côte Chalonnaise. Sophisticated techniques have been used to penetrate the palimpsest of intervening millennia, including grafitti left over several centuries by visitors to this corner of Burgundy's wine lands, 15km northwest of Chalons-sur-Saône.

This bucolic landscape, inhabited as far back as the time of the Neanderthals, has been under investigation for the past 150 years. For the last 20 years this has been carried out by the University of Tübingen in Germany under Harald Floss, Professor of Early Prehistory and Quaternary Ecology, who made the recent discovery.

'Because the frequency of Palaeolithic sites is particularly high here, researchers have suspected for some time that there would be a cave with paintings in it,' explains Professor Floss. 'The depictions are quite small. An engraved deer, for instance, is about 20cm long.

'For the paintings, black and red pigment was used. The black colour of the paintings themselves hasn't been studied yet. It could be charcoal or manganese oxides. We are at the very beginning of our research.Carbon-dating was possible from charcoal deposits found on the roof and over the paintings and engravings, which means they come from the latest possible date the paintings could have been made.'

Working with Juan Ruiz, a specialist in cave art from the University of Cuenca in Spain, the walls were scanned for
signs of images beneath the later graffiti. Once discovered, these early figures were reconstructed using image-processing software, and multiple photographs were used to create a three-dimensional image.

'Early modern humans were guided by rivers as they spread across the continent,' he explains. 'They may have migrated here from the east via the Danube and from the south via the Rhône. Our data suggest that Neanderthals and early modern humans could have met here in eastern France.

'The region was inhabited first by Neanderthals and then by modern humans. We excavated such sites of Neanderthals in Germolles, and Fontaines, for instance. We excavated sites of modern humans there, too – in Saint-Martin-sous-Montaigu.

'European ice age art generally dates to the Upper Palaeolithic Period (circa 40,000 BC to 10,000 BC). The paintings are at least 12,000 years old, but could be considerably older, by maybe 20,000 or 30,000 years.' In comparison, the world-famous paintings in the caves at Lascaux were made around 17,000 years ago.

At around the same time that the finds at Rully were being announced, news came in of the discovery made by Griffith University in Queensland of cave art in Borneo. This supposedly dates back 40,000 years, which now makes it the oldest known in the world.

Roger Williams