28 May 2002
Faces from the Ice Age
carved on the floor of a cave at La Marche
By Dr David Whitehouse
BBC News Online science editor
What could be the oldest lifelike
drawings of human faces have been uncovered in a cave in southern France.
The images were first recognised
over 50 years ago, but were then lost after doubts were cast on their
Now, one German scientist, Dr
Michael Rappenglueck, of Munich University, says it is time the pictures
And there could be other surprises
awaiting archaeologists, he believes, when they look not at the walls
of prehistoric painted caves, but at the floor.
The faces on this page were
discovered carved on the floor of a cave at La Marche in the Lussac-les-Chateaux
area of France.
The cave system was discovered in 1937 by French scientist Leon Pencard,
who excavated it for five years. Over 1,500 slabs were found on which
images were etched.
The pictures are difficult to
interpret. Sometimes several images are superimposed on one another. But
to the trained and expectant eye they reveal extraordinary wonders.
From the La Marche caves there
are lions, bears, antelope, horses - and 155 lifelike human figures.
These images of "real people"
- male and female faces, people in robes, hats and boots - may date back
15,000 years. This was long before the rise of the great civilisations
and a time when Europe was firmly in the grip of an Ice Age.
If correct, this would make
them far older, for example, than the symbolic face recently recognised,
carved into a rock at Stonehenge.
"They have been completely overlooked
by modern science," Dr Rappenglueck told BBC News Online. "They were mentioned
in a few books many decades ago and dismissed as fakes - and since then
The portraits were carved into
limestone slabs that were then carefully placed on the floor.
The illustrations are not the
stick-like figures seen in prehistoric cave paintings -- such as the images
in the more famous Lascaux cave system that probably date back 17,000
years; or at Chauvet that go back more than 30,000 years.
However, it has sometimes been
asked why the animals painted on the walls of such caves are so much more
lifelike than the human forms depicted with them.
Could it be because the more
sophisticated human pictures were placed on the floor, asks Dr Rappenglueck?
If so, such treasures on the
floors of other prehistoric caves may have been accidentally destroyed.
One of the first things that
archaeologists used to do when examining such caves was to level and strengthen
the floor, not thinking that what was under their feet could be just as
significant as what was on the cave walls.
In Lascaux, for example, the
floor was obliterated to make way for visitors in the 1950s. There is
no way of knowing if anything significant was destroyed.
Stars in the ground
Dr Rappenglueck speculates that
many archaeological wonders could have been covered up.
"On the floors of one cave I
noticed a series of pits arranged in the shape of the Pleiades (also known
as the Seven Sisters) star cluster," he said.
Drawings of the Pleiades have
been found by Dr Rappenglueck on the walls of many Neolithic caves in
several parts of Europe, but until now no cosmic marks had been found
on cave floors.
He speculates that the small
holes could have been filled with animal fat and set alight mimicking
the flickering stars in the sky.
"Perhaps this is the origin
of the candlelit festivals of the Far East where lighted candles are held
in the shape of the Pleiades. Perhaps it is a tradition that stretches
back tens of thousands of years into our Stone Age past."