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Rhino drawings from the Chauvet Cave, 37,000 to 33,500 years old, and map of Aurignacian sites
Geographical rangeEurasia
PeriodUpper Paleolithic
Datesc. 43,000 – c. 28,000 BP[1][2]
Type siteAurignac
Preceded byAhmarian, Châtelperronian
Followed byGravettian
Defined byBreuil and Cartailhac, 1906[3]

The Aurignacian (/ɔːrɪɡˈnʃən/) is an archaeological tradition of the Upper Palaeolithic associated with European early modern humans (EEMH). The Upper Paleolithic developed in Europe some time after the Levant, where the Emiran period and the Ahmarian period form the very first periods of the Upper Paleolithic, corresponding to the first stages of the expansion of Homo sapiens out of Africa.[4] From this stage, the first modern humans probably migrated to Europe to form the beginning of the European Upper Paleolithic, including the Aurignacian culture.[4]

An Early Aurignacian or Proto-Aurignacian stage is dated between about 43,000 and 37,000 years ago. The Aurignacian proper lasts from about 37,000 to 33,000 years ago. A Late Aurignacian phase transitional with the Gravettian dates to about 33,000 to 26,000 years ago.[5] The type site is the Cave of Aurignac, Haute-Garonne, south-west France. The main preceding period is the Mousterian of the Neanderthals.

One of the oldest examples of figurative art, the Venus of Hohle Fels, comes from the Aurignacian and is dated to between 40,000 and 35,000 years ago (though now earlier figurative art may be known, see Lubang Jeriji Saléh). It was discovered in September 2008 in a cave at Schelklingen in Baden-Württemberg in western Germany. The German Lion-man figure is given a similar date range. The Bacho Kiro site in Bulgaria is one of the earliest known Aurignacian burials.[6]

A "Levantine Aurignacian" culture is known from the Levant, with a type of blade technology very similar to the European Aurignacian, following chronologically the Emiran and Early Ahmarian in the same area of the Near East, and also closely related to them.[7] The Levantine Aurignacian may have preceded European Aurignacian, but there is a possibility that the Levantine Aurignacian was rather the result of reverse influence from the European Aurignacian: this remains unsettled.[8]

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Professor Randy White is a professor at New York University. He also holds research affiliations at a number of institutions in France. He's directed long-term excavations at a number of sites in France, you'll hear about shortly, I'm sure. But I want to point out that his excavation methods, his techniques, his ways of working really are at the sort of leading edge of how we do archaeology in the field. He has been able to share his results widely, with many appearances on TV and film and radio and, of course, his numerous publications. I'm going to highlight two books in particular, my own very well-worn copies. One is Dark Caves, Bright Visions, and the other is Prehistoric Art-- The Symbolic Journey of Human Kind. And the reason I highlight these is it's a dirty little secret that if you teach the art of ice age Europe, whether you know it or not, you've probably pilfered images from these books. They really are classics in sort of the presentation of the things that are out there. My own lectures are full of them. But it's not just about presentation. What's really been transformative, really important about Professor White's work is that some of the things that he works on, things we might call personal ornaments, things like beads-- decades ago, these were things you'd find at the end of a monograph called small finds. They were trivial. They were unimportant things that were sort of an appendix, quite literally, often. They're now seen as really central to understanding how people navigate social worlds, how to deal with the world around them from an archaeological perspective. His work has really revolutionized the ways we think about prehistoric art. On a personal note, I want to also say that Randy has for several years been a good friend, a colleague, and a mentor. My first tenure track job was at New York University. And if any of you have been in this position, your first year of a tenure track job, you're very delicate. You're very prone to break down, which I did quite often, and Randy was often there to help me out. I really, really came to rely on his advice, his wisdom, and our conversations. So it's a very great pleasure to welcome Professor Randy White. Thank you. [APPLAUSE] Thank you, Christian, for that lovely introduction. Thank you for the invitation to come here, which I snapped up immediately. Because Hallam Movius was such an important figure in my young professional years. He set the sort of gold standard for excavation techniques. And it's really true that his legacy remains from a scientific perspective, but also from a personal perspective. So this was an imitation that I could not turn down. The other invitation I couldn't turn down was my 10-year-old daughter, who said, you have to put a picture of me in the presentation because I just got my citizenship. So I'm imposing that on you. [APPLAUSE] She's a 10-year-old French girl who was born in Sarlat, in the Dordogne region of Southwestern France, and now has dual citizenship, so she's very happy about that. I have a few pictures in my archive of Hallam Movius. This is one with the famous French prehistorian Francois Bordes. This one was taken at a site called Combe Grenal. And in the bottom right here, you can see a top view of the really quite massive excavation of Hallam Movius at Abri Pataud in the Vezere Valley of Southwestern France. That excavation, which was able to make use of the new science of radiocarbon dating, really revolutionized our knowledge of the chronology and stratigraphy of the upper Paleolithic period, the period of the Cro-Magnons in Southwestern France. This is the usual slide in which I thank the hundreds of people who have given millions of dollars to the research that we've been doing in Southwestern France. But it really is true that in 20 or so years of excavation, we've really had to rely on the generosity of a number of different foundations and individuals. So whatever I'm able to say that's new tonight is a result of that kind of generous support. What I'm going to talk to you about tonight inserts itself into a larger set of questions and debates today about the origins of modern humans and their dispersal out of Africa and into other parts of the world, as far as Australia and the Pacific. And when we talk about art and symbolism, we use a lot of words. I don't like the word "art," personally. I prefer to just talk broadly in terms of representation or material representation. But art is a hook. Everybody's got their thing about art, and it gets a lot of people in the room. So we find early in the record, as early as a couple of 100,000 years ago, evidence for such things as hematite and red ocher and other such things. For example, here at Blombos Cave on the Indian Ocean coast of South Africa, we have some geometrically scratched or incised lines on a piece of hematite. We have evidence that hematite was being ground or scraped in some way. And we actually have from almost 100,000 years ago some shells, marine shells, bivalve shells, that were apparently used to store or to process hematite. There's a lot of debate about the degree to which before 40,000 years ago, there is evidence for something that we might call "art." I think there is, partly because my definition of art includes such things as personal ornaments, body decorations, and the like. I think they are of kinds of representations, often very profound representations, of who people are socially. That record is becoming more abundant from outside of Western Eurasia, including, for example, here at Qafzeh in Israel a set of shells, many of which have traces of red coloring on them and some other ostrich egg shell objects, probably parts of water gourds that date to about 55,000 years ago from southern Africa. The earliest graphic representation that people find credible is this painted plaque, which fell from the ceiling of a rock shelter, which the vast majority of archaeologists date to about 30,000 years ago. There are some people who think it's much older. But for the moment, this is the earliest painted, recognizable image, that I'm aware of at least, from the African continent. My guess is that in the years to come, as art becomes more of the mainstream of paleolithic archaeology in Africa, that we'll find much older examples of this. Why not? After all, beginning 200,000 years ago, Africa was peopled by modern humans-- what we call modern humans, anatomically modern humans, if you like the term-- who should be operating in many ways like we're operating. By 40,000 years ago, personal ornaments in particular become a really banal, routine part of the archaeological record. Everybody's doing it. And so it's worth asking what it is about ornaments, what it is about pierced shells, what it is about pierced teeth, for example. And I'll be talking a little bit of that in a second. I'm blowing through this early sort of proto-art record, if you like, very quickly, because this really isn't the subject of my talk tonight. But it does constitute a significant debate right now, and there is a really serious attempt on the part of some scholars and scientists to resurrect the Neanderthals and to make them symbolic creatures, such as the case here at Fumane in Italy, where we have bird bones that are interpreted as having had feathers removed from them. And the feathers are interpreted as being used as personal ornaments. Most recently, published in Science just two weeks ago, we have claims for 65,000 year old cave art in Spain. I am part of a group of scientists, 24 of us who are about to co-sign of paper in PNAS, refuting, we hope, these claims. And I'll just give you an idea of what such claims are based on and why we need to be skeptical about them. We're going to look at two dates from this image that you can see here. It's a rectangular grid-like thing with some other rather difficult to interpret shapes off of it. But the claim is that this dates to 64,860 years ago by uranium thorium. And the date comes from a dating of that little piece of calcite crust that you can see there. The problem is that the authors don't tell you that the other side of the same image, the other side of the same rectangle, has a date of 3,090 BP. So there are some serious problems with this uranium thorium calcite dating. And I think the jury is out as far as the credibility of these very early examples, claimed examples, of painted images by Neanderthals. So I don't want to take that argument any farther. I'm going to tonight try to show you a bunch of new material that you will never have seen before from our own excavations. We've increased the sample of art from the ordination culture from Western Europe. We've increased the sample by almost 40% in the past 10 years. And you'll be seeing some new images in that regard. But I like to drag up this old set of concepts about art. George Mills, he's probably been dead for 50 or 60 years. But in a paper way back in 1957, he raised some interesting issues about art and what its essential qualities were. And anthropologists have struggled with this for a long time. Anthropologists are very critical of the notion of art. They see it as being culturally situated, as not some sort of iconic, universal phenomenon. But his approach at least gives us a way of thinking about art, that its essential qualities lie in its formal organization and/or in its metaphorical potential. And you'll see why this is important as we move through the lecture tonight. And for him, the anthropological side of it was really mostly about metaphor, even though Aristotle-- it would be hard to describe him as an ethnographer. But the idea that what was metaphorical in art gave it its evocative potential. So just bear these kinds of simple arguments in mind, and we'll bring them to bear. So metaphor gives the art its capacity to be evocative. Now, how the hell do you get at metaphors 40,000 years ago? Well, I'm going to try to convince you that we can. So this is it, art, according to Mills. It's simple-minded, and we could spend decades-- we have spent decades-- worrying about what art is and whether it's universal or not. But for him, art was simply controlled, qualitative experience. So let's keep that definition simple. And we're going to apply that definition and find some illustrations of it in a culture that's very widespread, all the way from the Atlantic coast to the Iranian Plateau, a culture called the Aurignacian. Hallam Movius knew this culture well, because it constituted the four levels at the base of the Abri Pataud. And we now know through a much more refined radiocarbon dating methodology that the Aurignacian exists for a long period of time, from 43,000 years ago to approximately 30,000 years ago in real calendar years, or as close as we can get to them. It covers a very vast area of Western Eurasia. And the material that I'm going to be focusing on tonight comes from France, from Germany, from Italy, from Romania. And more and more sites are now being found as cave art research intensifies into Serbia and Croatia-- now we have examples-- and as far afield as China when it comes down to it. So that's not Aurignacian, because the cultural area of the Aurignacian is confined to what you can see on this map. But if you've been following it all new discoveries as they're being published in the popular press or in the scientific press, you know that there's been a lot going on lately. In this area, around 40,000 years ago-- we've produced several new discoveries, which we'll look more closely at. But sites in southwestern Germany, which yielded small ivory sculptures to research in the 1930s, have now under new excavations, much better controlled excavations, produced a whole new series of such objects in well-dated contexts. If you're in this room, you've probably heard of the Grotte Chauvet. And what I would just like you to know about the Grotte Chauvet is that it is the same time period as the work that we're doing in a quite different region. So one of the things we'll be noting is that this early corpus of graphic representation is already characterized by regional variation, against the backdrop of some quite similar kinds of approaches. But it's already structured regionally. What we're going to be looking at as examples of representation or art here are personal adornment, some really quite spectacular examples; instrumental music, some really quite spectacular examples. And you'll hear some of that. And graphic imagery and composition, both engraved, painted, sculpted, et cetera. Virtually everything I'm going to show you predates 35,000 years ago. And there's virtually none of it that even comes close to 30,000 years ago. And so it really does constitute the first few millennia of, so far as we know today, the existence of graphic representations that seem to represent something about the real world. Let's take a brief, rich look at personal ornamentation. Because it's with the Aurignacian that we see something more than pierced shells, for example. Personal ornamentation ethnographically, and this is what got me intrigued by it 30 years ago, is important because it allows the construction and communication of a variety of social and personal identities. Just look around the room. Look out on the street. What you where is who you are, socially speaking. It communicates an awful lot about you. It's complex in its construction. Pig's teeth have certain value to New Guineans that they don't have for us. It's a cultural construction in a way that expresses and communicates social identity. It also allows you to internally differentiate within societies, so that within our own community, people wear different things that we interpret as a signal to us, without much in the way of interpretation on our part. It's a kind of gestalt experience. And here we return to the question of metaphor. It allows metaphorical linkages between chosen raw materials and social persons. And I'll illustrate more about what I mean about that. How do we construct the elements of that communication of social identity? So let's move immediately to the Aurignacian. This is the animal that the Aurignacians of Western Central Europe ate the most. At Abri Castanet, which you'll see some images of in a little while, 94% of all of our animal bone comes from this animal, the reindeer-- caribou as we call it in North America. How many ornaments do you think in the entire Aurignacian-- I've studied in my career probably 3,500 Aurignacian ornaments. How many do you suppose come from bones or teeth of reindeer? Zero. That's already an interesting observation, that the consumed animal record shows a different proportion to the animal record that's being used for expressive purposes. So what are Aurignacians, then-- what animal parts are they using in their ornamental expression? These are the animals, with examples, real Aurignacian, dated Aurignacian examples beside them. Foxes, wolves, hyenas, large cats, frequently. Bears. And then at the lower end of the range, aurochs, wild cattle, some bison, some horses, and red deer, the red deer only being represented by these vestigial canine teeth that have this kind of rounded, nubby appearance. And when they don't have them, the Aurignacians are making them out of ivory, as you can see in the bottom of this screen. It brings us to a question of facsimiles, which they're doing a lot of. They're making ornaments that are replicas of real world things, like teeth or shells. They're making them in other materials, which is something really quite new on the horizon. And humans. We now have seven sites from Western Eurasia, where the Aurignacians are preparing, by perforation or by incision around the root, human teeth, mostly adult human teeth, but some kids as well. So it's a funny choice. What they're eating is not what they're wearing. Let's just put it that way. And you can raise the question as to whether their choice of teeth is because of something to do with the form of the teeth, or whether it has something to do with the animal that's metonymically or metaphorically represented by the teeth, presuming that most people in these populations would have been quite able to distinguish a horse incisor from a red deer canine. In addition to that, there are a number of worked objects, formed objects that aren't animal parts. This is a recently discovered from in situ, well-dated deposits at Isturitz. This is a pendant that some people think is anthropomorphic. Some people think it's a replica of a tooth. Some people think it's none of the above. But it's made in a substance that has its own importance for these ornamental assemblages-- talc, or soapstone. Talc, or soapstone, has a really important place in Aurignacian ornamental assemblages. It's never found anywhere before the Aurignacian. It has absolutely no purpose in Aurignacian assemblages functionally speaking. It doesn't play a technological role. And as we'll see in a second, it comes from really far away. The sites that we're excavating in Southern France, the people had to go 1,800 meters into the high Pyrenees, sometimes 400 to 500 kilometers away, to obtain this material, the only interest of which it would seem is not its color but its soapy texture. Here's another one. This isn't the first thing you would expect people to be making ornaments out of 41,000 years ago-- amber. These are the oldest amber ornaments in the world. This is an amber pendant from the very lowest proto-Aurignacian levels at Isturitz. And something that you might take to be amber from Kostienki 17 on the Russian plain, it's a fossil belemnite. It's the rostrum of a fossil belemnite, which is a kind of squid that dates to, I don't know, 65 million years ago. People are mining these fossil rostra and transforming them into these really fantastic, lustrous beads that you would easily mistake for amber. But the Aurignacians are crazy about another material-- ivory. Ivory finds its place in the Aurignacian in virtually every assemblage of ornaments and art that we find. In my particular area of Southwestern France, it takes the form in the ornamental assemblages of these tiny so-called basket-shaped beads, which measure on average six millimeters in length. They're tiny. We have to develop really specialized techniques of recovery when we're excavating to recover these things. It takes an inordinate amount of time to do so. And you can see that they have a quality that I'm going to insist on, which is that they're lustrous. Ivory is lustrous. Why are we interested in ivory? Why are elephants being drawn to extinction? Part of it is that we have this thing about the soft, sexy texture of polished ivory. Ivory is not a very interesting material if you don't have the technology to polish it. And what we know in the Aurignacian and from the microscopic examination of these beads is that they're being polished with hematite. They're using metallic abrasives to polish these things to a fine luster. The other material that they're making those out of is talc, which shares some of the same qualities, the soapy, sexy texture, once you've polished it. And you're seeing here an example of raw talc, which, as I said, is not particularly interesting. They're going into the high Pyrenees. They're walking right past malachite, turquoise, all sorts of other things in the Pyrenees, and they're picking up this crappy beige, green-looking stuff that they're transforming into those fancy little beads. And they're moving that material across the landscape several hundred kilometers. Amber's fun. This is a slightly later amber bead. This is 37,000 years ago. On this amber bead, the hole is 1 and 1/2 millimeters. This is some of the practically microscopic work that they're involved in. Many of these things are miniatures. Yes, there are shells in these sites. The shells are coming from-- in the case of Southwestern France, the shells are coming from the Atlantic and the Mediterranean coast, up to 700 kilometers from where we're finding them. And you can see some examples here from Abri Castanet, our excavations at Abri Castanet, from 37,000 years ago. When they don't have shells, they're making fakes. And you can see here that these are two of six ivory facsimiles of shells from a site called La Souquette, now well-dated to 37,000 years ago. So what's the context of all of this stuff? Here's Abri Castanet. We've excavated there for years and years and years. I've gotten old excavating at Abri Castanet. But at the bottom of this very rich Aurignacian level, we have this fantastic set of fire features. And because we've excavated so meticulously using total station technology, recovering all of the beads, et cetera, we now have 150,000 objects from 25 square meters. And when you map all of that, what you can begin to see is some really quite interesting pattern. I don't know if you can make a-- why don't I have a-- I have a crazy mouse. There are a series of fire features here, around which we have these very dense concentrations of bone, stone, mineral, et cetera. Now, as far as ornaments are concerned, when we map the distributions of ornaments and unfinished in the process of being fabricated ornaments, we can begin to see very interesting spatial patterning around these fireplaces, including 1 and 1/2 square meters, in which virtually all of the bead production debris in the whole level is found. So pretty easy to imagine someone sitting at the edge of this fire feature, manufacturing ivory beads. So this is what I think. I think that the shared quality of all of this is luster. Whether it be dental enamel, whether it be talc, or soapstone, whether it be ivory or whether it be mother of pearl, the thing that they seem to be choosing to manufacture ornaments of are natural raw materials that are susceptible to luster. Mother of pearl, polished ivory, soapstone, tooth enamel, et cetera. So the Aurignacians are doing this. There's virtually no well-preserved Aurignacian site that doesn't have these kinds of examples of personal ornamentation. We've been working in the Vezere Valley, where Hallam Movius worked all of those years, at a number of sites-- Castanet, Blanchard, Cellier. It's an area that we refer to as the classic zone, because it was first excavated by, it was first researched by people like Lartet and Christy back in the 1860s. A lot of the sites have suffered badly, because they've been excavated in the trial and error development of our excavation techniques. So a lot of them have suffered quite badly. But we've made it our business to go back to a series of these sites and to see if we could find remaining deposits that would allow us to have a better understanding of chronology and such matters. The earliest evidence of Aurignacian engraving or graphic imagery was discovered at the site of Fongal in the Vezere Valley by Otto Hauser. Some of you may know a little bit about Otto Hauser. He was a very controversial figure at the beginning of the century, before the First World War. And he was the first to have claimed Aurignacian artwork of this nature. Much of that has been dispersed, but most of it is still preserved in museums. Our return to the field took place first in this little valley, the Vallon du Castel-Merle, which if you know the region is halfway between Les Eyzies and Montignac. And you have two adjacent rock shelters, which together yielded to research the beginning of the century about 65 engraved limestone slabs, engraved or painted limestone slabs. These include limestone slabs with the famous female vulva on them. If you've read any of the stuff about paleolithic vulva, that record comes from here. The initial record comes from here. These sites were excavated in 1909 and 1910, or 1910 and 1912, respectively. You can well imagine that excavation techniques in those days were not what they are today. And I've had the very disagreeable experience of passing many, many field seasons, walking on hundreds of stone artifacts left in the back dirt by these early excavators. Because they made very severe choices about what they kept. And for an archaeologist who's interested in context, it's really depressing to see what was destroyed. At Abri Castanet, Peyrony excavated there from 1910 to 1912 and again in 1923. And we returned to the site for 14 field seasons in another section of the site, the southern section of the site, which is where those fire features were found. But in the blurb for this talk, there is some mention of back dirt. Well, the back dirt contains lithics. But look what Peyrony left in the back. This is us struggling in Peyrony's back dirt to move this large limestone block, which has a bas relief sculpture of an aurochs or a bison on it that dates to 37,000 years ago. So it wasn't just lithics that were being left behind, stone tools that were being left behind in the back dirt. Peyrony left us a block that I can't even get my arms around, with an engraving and a hole drilled in it from this very remote period. But in the sector that we excavated, we were very interested in understanding the context of these engraved and sculpted limestone blocks. Were they freestanding blocks? Well, the one you just saw, we think, was a freestanding block on a living surface. But it has always been suggested that most of these were blocks that had fallen from the ceiling of the rock shelter. And what you're looking at here is a technical drawing of basically the collapsed rock shelter of Abri Castanet. And that big block in the middle, block K, took us two years to get down through. But it is a block that's collapsed from the ceiling of the shelter. And we had to be careful, because you don't know what's going to be on the underside of these blocks. Too many of them have been badly excavated, and we didn't want to be one of those culprits, if you like. So we excavated this thing from the top down. We split it very carefully into salami slices, using old medieval stone wedging techniques. And, indeed, on the underside of it were a series of deep engravings that were in direct contact with the archaeological layer. And we have 21 dates on that archaeological layer that average 37,000 years ago. So this is the very first of these blocks in this valley, this famous valley, that we actually have a date on and a context for. We know that people are living on this surface and they're engraving images over their heads. We also know from geological reconstruction that the ceiling is two meters from the floor, so it's within arm's reach of people standing on the surface. Don't want to bore you with radiocarbon dates, but just know Abri Castanet is probably the best dated archaeological level in the Western European paleolithic. Its sister site, Abri Blanchard, yielded in 1910 and '11 to this guy, who was a hotel owner. That's what goes on here. Hotel owners excavate sites. Local farmers excavate sites. They pay people to excavate sites for them, and it explains the very rich back dirt that we have to struggle through. But Didon stumbled on probably what is the richest Aurignacian site in all of Eurasia, Abri Blanchard. And it yielded to him a whole series of engraved blocks, of personal ornaments, of pendants. If any of you know anything about the Aurignacian, it's very famous for an antler object, known as a split-based point. Abri Blanchard has more than 200 split-based points in only 50 square meters of archaeological surface. So these sites are major and important. The museums in France contain some of these objects. Some of the objects, including blocks, were dispersed, were sold. Some of the objects were left in the back dirt, as we saw with Peyrony's example. They have been the subject of a certain number of analyses. But even after all these years, we had the pleasure of discovering a Chauvet-like lion on one of these blocks that have probably been studied 50 times by archaeologists before us. But until we had Chauvet as the model, nobody could see that there was a lion there. But there it is, in a level that Abri Blanchard dated to 38,000 years ago. But our goal, really, was not to recover objects from the back dirt. It was to see if we could find some dirt in place that might yield some of these things in situ, so that we could actually get dates and context on them. And so we excavated the northern extremity of Abri Blanchard, that you can see here. And that big sort of round pile? That's the first back dirt pile of Didon's excavations. So they dug a trench, and they dumped all the sediment to the left. And then they moved to the right, progressively to the right. And they left us about seven square meters under the back dirt of intact Aurignacian deposit, corresponding to this very rich level of Abri Blanchard. So we excavated that carefully over two seasons. And in the middle of that quite concreted layer, we came down upon this large slab, about 50 to 60 centimeters in each direction. It's the only discovery of its that's actually-- the discovery which has actually been filmed in real time. We have film of the excavation and the turning over of this thing. Because the top part of it has nothing on it. But as I said before, in these sites, you never know what you're going to find on the bottom. And what we found on the bottom was this. In a layer that now has very solid dates at 38,000 years ago, the engraved surface is facing downward. It's almost certainly a piece of site furniture. It's not a part of the ceiling, so far as we can tell. The entire surface is prepared by abrasion. We know from a very careful analysis of the operational chain that produced it that the first thing that went onto that surface were the dots. These are drilled dots, basically. And then the animal itself was engraved around those dots. And then that big hole in the middle was gouged in, and may well be why the piece was broken, although the fact that the piece seems to have been broken in situ and it's got the engraved face downward raises another possibility. And that is that it was broken by pressure after it had been there. Was it turned over purposely? We don't know, but we have evidence from the older excavations that eight out of 10 of these blocks, 80% of these blocks, had their engraved surfaces downward in the archaeological level. That is, when you excavate these things, they're not staring up at you. What's represented is an aurochs. And in the immediate vicinity, we have a series of stone tools that have very heavy damage on them, which is consistent with-- I'll just go one step forward-- with what our experimental work shows stone tools to show when you've used them for a certain amount of time, doing this kind of deep engraving. They tend to be very large, thick blades, or even broken cores, that sort of thing, used for this purpose. So we think we may actually have the very tools that were used to produce this thing, but that would be an awfully hard thing to demonstrate. So that was a pretty interesting piece of salvage research, and allowed us to know a lot more about the chronology and the context of at least one of those blocks from Abri Blanchard. Another site that has contributed to questions surrounding the origins of the graphic arts-- and if any of you read any of the papers by Whitney Davis, for example, on the origins of art, you'll know that you focus is a lot of attention on so-called vulva, female vulva, and other images, most of them coming from the Vezere Valley. One of the key sites for those is Abri Cellier, which yielded to an American team from Beloit College, believe it or not, in 1927, which yielded a whole series of engraved and sculpted limestone blocks in a rock-sheltered context. This is a view of the site during our excavations of it. Like at Abri Blanchard, we were hopeful that we would be able to find some piece of the site that they had left behind. And, boy, they were really rigorous about excavating. We were almost ready to abandon ship, when we found about three square meters at one end of the site that was intact and corresponded to the stratigraphy as they had reported it. But look at this. In the middle of this site, they left a witness section. They were required by the French government to leave this witness section. And you can see against this witness section is a whole series of blocks piled up. This is a photo on one of the last days of excavation in 1927. And when we went back to excavate in 2014, that pile of blocks, while dispersed, was still there. And they had left them there because, well, they couldn't carry them back to Beloit College. These things are cumbersome. Some of them weigh 200 kilos. They left them there because they thought they might be candidates to have something on them. They had recovered, I think, 13 blocks that are in the Museum in Les Eyzies And they left this pile behind. So we were more than willing to-- well, we also have some indications of where some of their blocks came from. They showed us in at least two cases. And you can see here some of the blocks that they recovered, many of them containing what are interpreted as vulva. But there are also some animal images. But what do our blocks contain? What does that pile of blocks there contain? Oh my god, it's just a treasure trove of Aurignacian engraving that they simply left on the site, including vulva. These are objects, decorated objects, from their excavations. This is our cleaning up of the site and the stratigraphy at one end of the site, which contained one of these blocks still in place. And this is a very boring slide, but it shows you the blocks from 1927 on the top and then the blocks that we have. We doubled the number of blocks just through our work on-site. What's on these blocks? Lots of things, and nothing at all. The Aurignacian are great for just giving you a line that goes nowhere, or giving you a bunch of lines that are hard to interpret. Some people think this might be anthropomorphic. But this adds to the Abri Cellier corpus. What is it? Who knows? But it's very purposeful, and there it is. Several blocks with these gouged hooks in them, some of which are clearly parts of a collapsed ceiling. They seem to have been gouging these things into the drip line. Peyrony thought that they were dropping animal skins down from them to close off the front of the shelter, which is as good a hypothesis as I can think of. But, boy, they left some lovely things. Maybe if we didn't have Chauvet in our heads, we wouldn't know this was a woolly mammoth. But, boy, is this a woolly mammoth. And it's on one of these gouged blocks. Or how about this one? If you didn't have Chauvet, you might not think that they were making images out of dots. But we've argued that this is a very simple kind of pointillism in which animal forms are being constructed out of individual points. Aurignacian are complicated, and behind all of this simplicity is a complexity. At Chauvet, for example-- some of you may know this already, but this is a rhinoceros, a pointillist rhinoceros that's constructed out of dots. And if you look carefully, you can see that there are fingerprints, finger marks, and hand marks around these dots. That's because each dot was applied to the palm of the hand and then applied to the wall to construct out of 106 separate dots a woolly rhinoceros in pointillist fashion, 36,000 years ago in the Aurignacian. Sometimes you don't know if you can believe what you see. We think this is a woolly mammoth, but lots of people would disagree with us. You might be able to see an eye and a trunk. That's what we think is there, but sometimes they just leave you exasperated. This is perhaps a little better view of it up here. A not so great horse. A not so great horse. But if you're counting 38,000 years, it's a pretty great horse. And this is a block that we found in situ in the deposits that they left behind for us. We don't know what the hell is on it. Maybe there's a horse in profile, but it's got a whole series of incised lines and gouges and markings on it. And then there's one painted block. I put this in for Christian, because we talked about using DStretch yesterday afternoon. And when you apply DStretch to this, you can see there's just a very simple, very clear red line on one side of this block. So I'm not, as I said, going to bother you with these boring pie charts and things, except to say that we've increased by almost half the number of blocks by recovering them from back dirt, by recovering them from in situ, by picking up the ones that they left behind all those years ago. And so it's really changed the whole corpus. How does it change the corpus? Well, at Abri Cellier, for example, there were no mammoths previously. So now we have a very different species profile of the animals that are being represented. So that seems to us to be important, going back to this whole idea that they're not representing reindeer. They're eating reindeer like crazy, and they're not representing. What are they representing? They're representing mammoths, horses, ibex, and mammoths. Did I say mammoths? I said mammoths. So this is just an opportunity to see some of this crazy Aurignacian iconography here that includes things like animal paw prints, mostly felids, and some other animals that are not in the diet, or very seldom in the diet, including woolly rhinoceros. And what's kind of funny is that those animals, those themes show up across great distances. In one case, [INAUDIBLE] in Romania and Fongal in the Vezere Valley, for example. So there are certain animals that seem to be part of a very widespread set of ideas about what to represent. Switching geographic areas now, we have a very different tradition within the Aurignacian of sculpting small ivory sculptures. None of these that I'm going to show you is more than four centimeters long. So they're tiny. They're lost in the palm of your hand, which is why some of them ended up in the back dirt. This lovely woolly mammoth was found in Nick Conard's excavations of the back dirt at Vogelherd. And, of course, this one made the press seven or eight years ago now, I guess, which is a female representation from Hohle Fels, dated to approximately 40,000 years ago, in ivory. But perhaps the most stunning aspect of this South German record-- I think we have it in Southern France as well, but nobody ever looked for it. We have fragments of what I think are flutes. But in Germany, they've gone back to the back dirt piles, and they've excavated some of these things in situ. And they've found wind instruments, flutes in particular. This is one that was known from Southern France from excavations in the '20s and '30s. It's been replicated, and I have a little bit of sound for you. I have this crazy mouse that I made really big so you could see it, and now it's gotten out of control. This is the Isturitz. Forget the background music. [FLUTE PLAYING] This is actually being played by a professional flutist. [FLUTE PLAYING] Surprising what four holes can give you and a lot of talent. From the same level as this so-called Venus of Hohle Fels is another flute, found in close proximity. And there are now a total of seven or eight, I think, from the South German sites. The most spectacular is probably this one from Geisenklostere, which is fully sculpted out of ivory. How do you sculpt a flute out of ivory? They sculpted a pencil-like rod out of ivory. They split it down the middle, and they gouged out the chamber in the middle. And then they glued the thing back together again, with a whole series of little incisions on the outside, which seem to be a means of wrapping sinew or something around it to hold it together. These are some details of that. And I'm going to play both of these. This fellow, unfortunately, is no longer alive, but this is a reconstruction of what that flute looked like. And if I can control this mouse, [INAUDIBLE] what it sounds like. [FLUTE PLAYING] Sounds very German, but he's German. [FLUTE PLAYING] So when we think about an Aurignacian camp site, we can think about kids playing and screaming and laughing. And we can think about the sounds of music. We don't know what the music was like, but we certainly know what the sound quality is of the instruments were. It adds a whole new dimension to our thinking about these 40,000 year old Europeans. I'm going to finish up just in a couple of minutes with the work of someone who you should really read, if you're really interested in the origins of art. The book has not yet been translated into English. It's called The Prehistory of Cinema. And you might sort of chuckle about that, but there's really nothing to chuckle about. Mark has, I think, demonstrated at Chauvet and other places that what we're looking at in many instances is the beginning of animation. And nowhere is that better illustrated than at Chauvet. I have a lot of slides, and I could give you the whole tour of Chauvet, with the whole narrative and all of that. I'm not going to do that. I'm just going to show you some examples of animation. And we find this from the Aurignacian, all the way through the end of the upper Paleolithic sequence. This is the very end of Chauvet Cave. You may recognize it. It has a lot of lines in it. You can see on the left a rhinoceros. And let me give you just a sense of Mark's arguments about how Grotte Chauvet is constructed. So at the end of the cave, we have this panel. It's a very complicated panel. There's a hunting scene here of lions hunting aurochs. And then on the far left, there are lions in a hunting pose, in a, what do you call it, stalking pose, these ones. The question is, what are they stalking? Of course, in most cases, we look at these panels, and we presume that somehow the panel circumscribes what's being represented. But Mark had the very good idea of looking at the cave in a much more three-dimensional manner. And what he thinks they're stalking is the rhinoceros on the next panel back, that, actually, Chauvet has to be viewed as a three-dimensional construction, and that the animals on one panel are in direct relationship with the animals on the panel behind them. That's a revelation. There are very few places in Paleolithic art where anyone has made that sort of argument or where we can see that sort of thing. Remember, Chauvet is probably the earliest painted cave we have in the entire upper Paleolithic, the oldest dates going back to 37,000 years ago. So this is really complicated representation for such an early moment. There's one more example here. I sort of referred to it, but it's this one with the lions here, in a direct confrontation with a herd of aurochs, hunting. And there are some really quite savage scenes at Chauvet, where the lions are actually consuming the aurochs. So not only is Chauvet exceptional for what I just showed you, but it's also exceptional in that there does seem to be a narrative that you can follow throughout the cave, which is a narrative of lions in predation. So that forces us to think in a more complicated way about these Aurignacians. I know I can show you some other images here, but I think it's almost time to stop. Except that directly adjacent to this panel is an image that some of you will know, if you've followed Chauvet at all, which is the hybrid woman bison or woman aurochs. She's on a stalagmite, directly in front of that panel. But you have to go behind the stalagmite, facing the panel, to see her. She's got some relationship to this hunting scene with aurochs and lions. But I guess, as Hallam Movius would have said, we'll never know, as he was a great skeptic about our ability to address these kinds of questions. But there are other ones with horses and other such things. But let me blow through this to-- controlled, qualitative experience turns out to be a very complicated thing and is probably in some sort of complex relationship with Aurignacian cosmology, their relationship to the animal world, and other difficult aspects of their lives and thoughts. Thank you very much. [APPLAUSE]


Main characteristics

Expansion of early modern humans from Africa through the Levant were the Levantine Aurignacian stage has been identified.
Expansion of early modern humans from Africa through the Levant were the Levantine Aurignacian stage has been identified.

The Aurignacians are part of the wave of anatomically modern humans who spread from Africa through the Near East into Paleolithic Europe, and became known as European early modern humans, or Cro-Magnons.[4] This wave of anatomically modern humans includes fossils of the Ahmarian, Bohunician, Aurignacian, Gravettian, Solutrean and Magdalenian cultures, extending throughout the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), covering the period of roughly 48,000 to 15,000 years ago.[4]

The Aurignacian tool industry is characterized by worked bone or antler points with grooves cut in the bottom. Their flint tools include fine blades and bladelets struck from prepared cores rather than using crude flakes.[9] The people of this culture also produced some of the earliest known cave art, such as the animal engravings at Trois Freres and the paintings at Chauvet cave in southern France. They also made pendants, bracelets, and ivory beads, as well as three-dimensional figurines. Perforated rods, thought to be spear throwers or shaft wrenches, also are found at their sites.

Association with modern humans

The sophistication and self-awareness demonstrated in the work led archaeologists to consider the makers of Aurignacian artifacts the first modern humans in Europe. Human remains and Late Aurignacian artifacts found in juxtaposition support this inference. Although finds of human skeletal remains in direct association with Proto-Aurignacian technologies are scarce in Europe, the few available are also probably modern human. The best dated association between Aurignacian industries and human remains are those of at least five individuals from the Mladeč caves in the Czech Republic, dated by direct radiocarbon measurements of the skeletal remains to at least 31,000–32,000 years old. At least three robust, but typically anatomically-modern individuals from the Peștera cu Oase cave in Romania, were dated directly from the bones to ca. 35,000–36,000 BP. Although not associated directly with archaeological material, these finds are within the chronological and geographical range of the Early Aurignacian in southeastern Europe.[9] On genetic evidence it has been argued that both Aurignacian and the Dabba culture of North Africa came from an earlier big game hunting Levantine Aurignacian culture of the Levant.[10]


View of the Venus of Hohle Fels figurine (height 6 cm (2.4 in)), which may have been worn as an amulet and is the earliest known, undisputed example of a depiction of a human being in prehistoric art
View of the Venus of Hohle Fels figurine (height 6 cm (2.4 in)), which may have been worn as an amulet and is the earliest known, undisputed example of a depiction of a human being in prehistoric art

Aurignacian figurines have been found depicting faunal representations of the time period associated with now-extinct mammals, including mammoths, rhinoceros, and tarpan, along with anthropomorphized depictions that may be interpreted as some of the earliest evidence of religion.

Many 35,000-year-old animal figurines were discovered in the Vogelherd Cave in Germany.[11] One of the horses, amongst six tiny mammoth and horse ivory figures found previously at Vogelherd, was sculpted as skillfully as any piece found throughout the Upper Paleolithic. The production of ivory beads for body ornamentation was also important during the Aurignacian. The famous paintings in Chauvet cave date from this period.

Typical statuettes consist of women that are called Venus figurines. They emphasize the hips, breasts, and other body parts associated with fertility. Feet and arms are lacking or minimized. One of the most ancient figurines was discovered in 2008 in the Hohle Fels cave in Germany. The figurine has been dated to 35,000 years ago.[12][13]

Aurignacian finds include bone flutes. The oldest undisputed musical instrument was the Hohle Fels Flute discovered in the Hohle Fels cave in Germany's Swabian Alb in 2008.[14] The flute is made from a vulture's wing bone perforated with five finger holes, and dates to approximately 35,000 years ago.[14] A flute was also found at the Abri Blanchard in southwestern France.[15]


Entrance to the Potočka Zijalka, a cave in the Eastern Karavanke, where the remains of a human residence dated to the Aurignacian (40,000 to 30,000 BP) were found by Srečko Brodar in the 1920s and 1930s. It was the first high-altitude Aurignacian site to be discovered that significantly influenced the knowledge of the culture[16]
Entrance to the Potočka Zijalka, a cave in the Eastern Karavanke, where the remains of a human residence dated to the Aurignacian (40,000 to 30,000 BP) were found by Srečko Brodar in the 1920s and 1930s. It was the first high-altitude Aurignacian site to be discovered that significantly influenced the knowledge of the culture[16]

Stone tools from the Aurignacian culture are known as Mode 4, characterized by blades (rather than flakes, typical of mode 2 Acheulean and mode 3 Mousterian) from prepared cores. Also seen throughout the Upper Paleolithic is a greater degree of tool standardization and the use of bone and antler for tools. Based on the research of scraper reduction and paleoenvironment, the early Aurignacian group moved seasonally over greater distances to procure reindeer herds within cold and open environments than those of the earlier tool cultures.[17]


The Paleolithic
Pliocene (before Homo)
Map of the Mediterranean with important Aurignacian sites (clickable map).


Lebanon/Palestine/Israel region

  • Contained within a stratigraphic column, along with other cultures.[18]


See also

Preceded by
43,000–26,000 BP
Succeeded by


  1. ^ Milisauskas, Sarunas (2012-12-06). European Prehistory: A Survey. ISBN 9781461507512.
  2. ^ Shea, John J. (2013-02-28). Stone Tools in the Paleolithic and Neolithic Near East: A Guide. ISBN 9781139619387.
  3. ^ H. Martin (1906). "Industrie Moustérienne perfectionnée. Station de La Quina (Charente)". Bulletin de la Société Préhistorique de France (in French). 3 (6): 233–239. doi:10.3406/bspf.1906.7784. JSTOR 27906750.(subscription required)
  4. ^ a b c d Klein, Richard G. (2009). The Human Career: Human Biological and Cultural Origins. University of Chicago Press. p. 610. ISBN 9780226027524.
  5. ^ Hoffecker, J.F. (July 1, 2009). "The spread of modern humans in Europe" (PDF). PNAS. 106 (38): 16040–16045. Bibcode:2009PNAS..10616040H. doi:10.1073/pnas.0903446106. PMC 2752585 Freely accessible. PMID 19571003. Jacobi, R.M.; Higham, T.F.G.; Haesaerts, P.; Jadin, I.; Basell, L.S. (2015). "Radiocarbon chronology for the Early Gravettian of northern Europe: New AMS determinations for Maisières-Canal, Belgium". Antiquity. 84 (323): 26–40. doi:10.1017/S0003598X00099749. Wood, Bernard, ed. (2011). "Aurignacian". Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Human Evolution, 2 Volume Set. Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Human Evolution. John Wiley. ISBN 9781444342475.
  6. ^ Milisauskas, Sarunas (2011). European Prehistory: A Survey. Springer. p. 74. ISBN 978-1-4419-6633-9. Retrieved 8 June 2012. One of the earliest dates for an Aurignacian assemblage is greater than 43,000 BP from Bacho Kiro cave in Bulgaria ...
  7. ^ Shea, John J. (2013). Stone Tools in the Paleolithic and Neolithic Near East: A Guide. Cambridge University Press. pp. 150–155. ISBN 9781107006980.
  8. ^ Williams, John K. (2006). "The Levantine Aurignacian: a closer look" (PDF). Lisbon: Instituto Português de Arqueologia (Trabalhos de Arqueologia Bar-Yosef O, Zilhão J, Editors. Towards a Definition of the Aurignacian. 45): 317–352.
  9. ^ a b P.Mellars, Archeology and the Dispersal of Modern Humans in Europe: Deconstructing the Aurignacian, Evolutionary Anthropology, vol. 15 (2006), pp. 167–182.
  10. ^ Olivieri A, and 14 others. 2007. Timing of a back-migration into Africa. Science 316:50-53. doi:10.1126/science.316.5821.50, "Sequencing of 81 entire human mitochondrial DNAs (mtDNAs) belonging to haplogroups M1 and U6 reveals that these predominantly North African clades arose in southwestern Asia and moved together to Africa about 40,000 to 45,000 years ago. Their arrival temporally overlaps with the event(s) that led to the peopling of Europe by modern humans and was most likely the result of the same change in climate conditions that allowed humans to enter the Levant, opening the way to the colonization of both Europe and North Africa. Thus, the early Upper Palaeolithic population(s) carrying M1 and U6 did not return to Africa along the southern coastal route of the "out of Africa" exit, but from the Mediterranean area; and the North African Dabban and European Aurignacian industries derived from a common Levantine source."
  11. ^ Finds from the Vogelherd cave Archived 2007-09-30 at the Wayback Machine
  12. ^ Conard, Nicholas (2009). "A female figurine from the basal Aurignacian of Hohle Fels Cave in southwestern Germany". Nature. 459 (7244): 248–52. Bibcode:2009Natur.459..248C. doi:10.1038/nature07995. PMID 19444215.
  13. ^ Henderson, Mark (2009-05-14). "Prehistoric female figure 'earliest piece of erotic art uncovered'". The Times. London.
  14. ^ a b Conard, Nicholas; et al. (6 August 2009). "New flutes document the earliest musical tradition in southwestern Germany". Nature. 460 (7256): 737–740. doi:10.1038/nature08169. PMID 19553935.
  15. ^ Richard Leakey & Roger Lewin, Origins Reconsidered: In Search of What Makes Us Human (1992)
  16. ^ Debeljak, Irena; Turk, Matija. "Potočka zijalka". In Šmid Hribar, Mateja. Torkar, Gregor. Golež, Mateja. Podjed, Dan. Drago Kladnik, Drago. Erhartič, Bojan. Pavlin, Primož. Jerele, Ines. (eds.). Enciklopedija naravne in kulturne dediščine na Slovenskem – DEDI (in Slovenian). Archived from the original on 2012-05-15. Retrieved 12 March 2012.CS1 maint: uses editors parameter (link)
  17. ^ Blades, B. 2003 End scraper reduction and hunter-gatherer mobility. American Antiquity 68:141-156
  18. ^ a b Langer, William L., ed. (1972). An Encyclopedia of World History (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company. p. 9. ISBN 978-0-395-13592-1.

External links

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