© 2002 Tom Bacig
Last summer some of the Fumane calcite was removed, revealing strange
images done in red ochre. One of the images was of an animal-headed human.
It may be a depiction of a "sorcerer" -- perhaps the tribe's
magician, dancing with an animal-head mask in the firelight, evoking the
Stone slabs bearing images of an animal and a half-human, half-beast
figure were uncovered during excavations by an Italian team at the Fumane
Cave northwest of Verona. The images are believed to be at least as ancient
as some found in the Grotte Chauvet in southern France--the current record
holder at 32,000 years--and possibly even older. More important, cave
art experts say, the new paintings bolster other evidence that humans
engaged in sophisticated symbolic expression much earlier than once thought.
"Italians were distinguishing themselves as artists long before
the Renaissance and medieval times, it seems.
The images, presented at a press conference in the city yesterday, were painted in red ochre on rock and represent an animal with an elongated neck (possibly a weasel), a mysterious five-legged animal and a man - thought to be a wizard - wearing a mask with horns. They were found last year on fragments of rock from the walls of the Fumane Cave in the Lessini Hills, north of Verona.
"They are probably the oldest cave paintings, although we cannot affirm that with scientific certainty," said Professor Alberto Broglio, who teaches palaeontology at the university of Ferrara and coordinated the excavation.
The paintings, which could at first have been mistaken for smudges of dirt, may not have the visual impact of the bull daubed on a cave wall at Lascaux in southern France or the deer of the Altamira Cave in Spain, but they are at least 10,000 years older.
Dr Alessandra Astes, director of the Natural History Museum in Verona, said scientists were able to date the paintings, which measure between one and two feet long, through carbon dating and archaeological stratographic techniques, because the rocks had become detached from the cave wall and were buried under later generations of debris.
The figure of the man in the horned mask and with his arms outstretched was extremely rare in early cave paintings, said Dr Astes.
"The find is of enormous scientific significance, which goes far beyond its artistic or stylistic value," she said.
"The find is of exceptional value. I have been working as an archaeologist for 30 years and I have no hesitation in saying that."
Dr Astes believes the images are almost certainly the oldest in Europe and, therefore, in the world.
"No art forms of similar antiquity have been found in Africa, which is, after all, the cradle of humanity," Dr Astes said.
For researchers, who are still excavating the Fumane Cave, the discovery is a crucial link in the history of human life on Earth as well as a first glimpse of the creative instinct that inspired Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo in a later age.
The cave contains traces of Neanderthal man and evidence of habitation by modern Homo sapiens, including sharpened flints, bones and decorations made from sea shells. There are also the remains of a prehistoric hut.
The fragments were originally covered with stalagmites which, Prof Broglio said, helped preserve the images.
"This find completes our picture of the first representatives of modern man and throws light on the debate as to whether he descended from Neanderthal man or was an immigrant from the Middle East," he said.
The find supports recent DNA evidence that modern Homo sapiens were not related to Neanderthal man, the professor said.
He added: "The traces we have found show a clean break between Neanderthal
and modern man both in terms of culture and lifestyle. There is an abrupt
change in the techniques of decoration and the use of flint and bone tools.
Everything changes, in a radical, brutal fashion."