Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism. Become a member today »

It should be no surprise that early humans decorated their surroundings with symbols of fertility, so the discovery that the oldest rock art ever found in Europe depicts a vulva isn’t exactly making waves. But the discover is more than noteworthy consider it is reputedly “the oldest evidence of any kind of graphic imagery.”

Live Science reports:

The new discovery, uncovered at a site called Abri Castanet in France, consists mainly of circular carvings most likely meant to represent the vulva. The carvings were etched into the ceiling of a now-collapsed rock shelter about 37,000 years ago, researchers reported Monday (May 14) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Who were these early artists? They were a group called the Aurignicians, a group from Africa that lived roughtly 45,000 to 35,000 years ago and eventually replace the Neanderthals.

The Christian Science Monitor explains how this discovery on the underside of a 1.5 ton limestone slab is very different than the cave paintings often associated with prehistoric human art:

The art is slightly older than the previous underground record-holders, adorning the walls of a cave known as Grotte Chauvet in southeastern France. But that art — drawings of horses, cave lions, rhino, and other animals — appears deep inside what would have been a lightly trafficked cave.

The “vulva” in context with the zoomorphic sculpture (via www.pnas.org)

The article explains how the discovery was made and how unusual the life of an archeologist must be:

“The colleague standing next to me said: Oh [expletive]! A vulva!”  [New York University anthropologist Randall] White recalls when the etched representation came into view. “The chills just went up and down because we were the first people to have found one of these things since the 1920s.”

Previously we had reported that the oldest known paintings were discovered in a Spanish cave and were reputedly painted by Neanderthals. It is believed those paintings, which depicted what archeologists described as seals, where 42,300 to 43,500 years old.

If you’re interested in reading the scientific paper, here’s the link: Randall White et al, “Context and dating of Aurignacian vulvar representations from Abri Castanet, France,” PNAS 2012 ; published ahead of print May 14, 2012,doi:10.1073/pnas.1119663109 (PPV)

Support Hyperallergic

As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever. 

Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.

Become a Member

Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.