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4 June 2006
Ancient skeleton sits among art in France

A 27,000-year-old human skeleton laid out in a room decorated with ancient art was among the rare finds at a cave in western France whose subterranean art predates that of the famed Lascaux caves. The state took over ownership of the cave in the Vilhonneur forest on May 12 and 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 French Culture Ministry said in a statement.
     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 very recently that information about what it contained was disclosed.
     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. Five skeletons of young hyenas were found in another room. 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 has been placed there, experts said.
     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. Experts plan to secure the Vilhonneur cave and carry out research likely to last several years.

Sources: Associated Press, Concord Monitor, Evening Echo, Helenair Independent Record, News24 (3 June 2006)

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