Ancient skeleton, art found in French cave

Published: Sunday, June 4 2006 12:00 a.m. MDT

VILHONNEUR, France — A 27,000-year-old human skeleton laid out in a room decorated with ancient art and a crude representation of a face are among the rare finds in a cave in western France, officials said Friday.

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

It was only the second time that a human body is known to have been placed in a decorated cave from the Upper Paleolithic Period, the ministry said.

A single face drawn in the cave could be among the world's oldest known graphic representations of a human face, said Jean-Yves Baratin, archaeology curator for the Poitou-Charentes region.

The face is "represented in the most elementary way," Baratin said.

He said two pieces of calcite that split were used to form the hair with two black horizontal strokes depicting the eyes. A vertical stroke formed 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. The find was announced in February, but it was not until Friday that information about what it contained was disclosed.

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.

Baratin underscored the significance of the human skeleton, a young male, placed inside a decorated room. He said two rib bones were analyzed at a Miami laboratory, dating the skeleton at 27,000 years.

The only other case of a skeleton being found in a decorated cave room was in the hamlet of Cussac, a grotto experts say was as important for engravings as paintings are for the famed Lascaux caves.

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 had been placed there, experts said.

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

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