Anthropologists working in southern France believe they have discovered the oldest example of cave art on a 1.5 metric tonne block limestone, which reveals an interest in the female form - and the type of decor that the first Europeans preferred for their living spaces.
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.
"It's quotidian art, it's everyday art. It's over their heads as they're doing everyday , banal sorts of things," study researcher Randall White, an anthropologist at New York University , told Live Science.
The artists who created this ceiling decor were the first humans in Europe, a group called the Aurignicians . Arriving from Africa , they would replace the Neanderthals in Eurasia.
They were hunter-gatherers , White said, and their society was quite complex. They painted, sculpted and made carvings. Their jewellery included woolly mammoth ivory beads, pierced animal teeth and shells from both the Mediterranean and the Atlantic.
The Aurignicians would have spent winters at the site in southwestern France, perhaps in groups of up to 300 people, White said. These hunter-gatherers found shelter beneath a rock overhang about 23 feet deep and about 6 feet tall. On the ceiling, they pecked away rock, carving multiple depictions of notched circles likely meant to represent the female genitalia.
Other European rock art sites have similar carvings, he said, though there are regional differences in how symbols are drawn.