The Dordogne region in southwestern France is home to over 200 sites with Paleolithic parietal art, making it one of the richest areas in the world in this regard. One of the most important sites is the Font-de-Gaume cave, known for its bison representations, but whose paintings are difficult to date due to the type of pigments used.

Now, a study by French researchers has uncovered new pieces of art that shed light on the chronology of different pictorial styles in this cavity. The Font-de-Gaume cave contains hundreds of representations of animals and signs created using techniques such as painting, drawing, and engraving. The most common animals are bison, mammoths, deer, and horses.

Until now, it was believed that all the art had been exclusively created with mineral pigments like iron and manganese oxides, making direct dating using carbon-14 impossible.

The research team applied innovative non-invasive techniques such as portable Raman spectroscopy and in situ X-ray fluorescence to non-destructively analyze the paintings and drawings in the main gallery.

This allowed them to identify, for the first time, the presence of numerous representations made with charcoal, in addition to the already known ones made with metallic oxides. Specifically, they found horse, deer, and bison figures drawn in charcoal that overlapped with other more elaborate paintings made with iron and manganese oxides. Due to their schematic style, researchers suggest that these charcoal representations could be older than the typical Magdalenian art of the cave, dated between 19,000-11,000 years ago.

This discovery is significant because it allows for the first time the direct dating of part of the Paleolithic art of Font-de-Gaume using carbon-14 from charcoal figures, shedding light on its exact chronology.

Additionally, the identification of different techniques and styles suggests the existence of at least two creative phases by the human groups that inhabited the cave, which has implications for their social organization and symbolic imagination.

The study demonstrates the importance of applying non-destructive methodologies such as Raman spectroscopy and in situ X-ray fluorescence, capable of identifying organic pigments like charcoal that were previously overlooked.

These new findings open the door to a more thorough reinterpretation of the Font-de-Gaume panels and absolute datings that will help reconstruct the history of human occupation in the cave with greater precision.

They will also allow for comparisons with other sites in southwestern France, advancing the understanding of Paleolithic parietal art and its chronology at a regional level. This is undoubtedly a discovery that will be crucial for archaeological research in the coming years.


Reiche, I., Coquinot, Y., Trosseau, A. et al. First discovery of charcoal-based prehistoric cave art in Dordogne. Sci Rep 13, 22235 (2023).

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