Cave women in a different light

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Sindya Bhanoo

May 16, 2012

Prehistoric porn ... A 37,000-year-old engraving of what might be female genitalia has been found in France.

IT COULD be cave man pornography. Researchers have discovered illustrations of female anatomy in a rock shelter in France that date back 37,000 years. It is ''the oldest evidence of any kind of graphic imagery'', said Randall White, an anthropologist at New York University and one of the researchers working on the project.

He and his colleagues report their findings in the current issue of The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences .

The drawings include what appear to be images of the female vulva, illustrated by circles with small slits on one side. ''You see this again and again and again,'' Professor White said. There are also very simple images, in profile, of animals, including horses and lion-like big cats, he said.
The work was discovered on a collapsed roof of a rock shelter at the Abri Castanet site in the Vezere River valley in south-west France. Humans at the time lived in such shelters, Professor White said, and it was a period of cultural emergence. ''They were working with ivory beads and other personal ornamentation,'' he said. ''They were decorating their bodies in complex ways.''

Professor White and his team are continuing their excavation work at the site and hope that by deciphering more of the art, they can understand the culture of the people better. ''What we hope to be able to do is map the distribution of images on the ceiling and all of the activities of the time,'' he said. ''There may be a relationship between the art on the ceiling and their lives.''

The work is less sophisticated than the elaborate paintings of animals found in France's Grotte Chauvet, which was more remote and difficult to access, believed to be between 30,000 and 36,000 years old. The engravings and paintings at Castanet are rougher and more primitive in style, and were likely done by everyday people.

''This art appears to be slightly older than the famous paintings from the Grotte Chauvet in south-eastern France,'' Professor White said. ''But unlike the Chauvet paintings and engravings, which are deep underground and away from living areas, the engravings and paintings at Castanet are directly associated with everyday life, given their proximity to tools, fireplaces, bone and antler tool production, and ornament workshops.''