Experts: Human Skeleton Found in Decorated Cave Room in France a Rarity

A 27,000-year-old human skeleton laid out in a room decorated with ancient art was among the rare finds at a cave in western France whose subterranean art predates that of the famed Lascaux caves, officials said Friday.

It was only the second time that a human body from the upper Paleolithic period had been found placed in a cave with decorations, the Culture Ministry said.

The state took over ownership of the cave in the Vilhonneur forest on May 12, a ministry statement said.

A crude representation of a human face found in the cave could be among the oldest ever discovered, said Jean-Yves Baratin, archaeology curator for the Poitou-Charentes region.

The face is "represented in the most elementary way, using an anomaly of the wall," Baratin said.

Two pieces of calcite that split are used to form the hair with two black horizontal strokes depicting the eyes. A vertical stroke forms the nose and another horizontal stroke the mouth.

Cavers exploring part of a grotto once used to dispose of animal carcasses discovered the cave in December. It dates to the upper Paleolithic period roughly 25,000 years ago, like the skeleton.

It's discovery was announced in February but it was not until Friday that precise information about some of the finds was divulged.

Baratin underscored the significance of the human skeleton, a young male, placed on the ground inside a decorated room. The only other instance in which a body was known to have been found in a decorated room of a cave is in the hamlet of Cussac, a grotto that experts have said was as important for engravings as paintings are for the famed Lascaux caves.

The archaeologist said two rib bones were analyzed at a Miami, Florida, laboratory, dating the skeleton at 27,000 years.

The Vilhonneur cave features a series of decorations, including a negative imprint of a right hand, surrounded in black, on a wall, made by blowing color onto the area once the hand has been placed there, experts said.

Five skeletons of young hyenas were found in another room.

The famed Lascaux Cave in Montignac, in the southwest Dordogne region, has long been considered one of the finest examples of cave paintings. However, that art dates to 13,000 years, making the Vilhonneur art much older. Another cave, Chauvet, discovered in the mid-1990s in southeast France, features some 300 examples of Paleolithic animal art, some dating back 31,000 years.

Experts plan to secure the Vilhonneur cave and carry out research likely to last several years.