The famous images decorating the walls of caves like Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain hold their own among the acknowledged masterpieces of recorded history. Dating back some 12,000 to 17,000 years to the Magdalenian period, these elegant depictions, rendered in charcoal and ochre, captured the essences of horses, bison, rhinoceroses and other creatures the artists encountered in their Ice Age lives. Now new evidence reveals similarly sophisticated artwork to be twice as old as the Magdalenian material. Findings described today in the journal Nature confirm that paintings found in Chauvet cave in Vallon-Pont-dArc, Ardeche, France date to the Aurignacian period, around 30,000 years ago.

French researcher Helene Valladas and colleagues obtained radiocarbon dates on charcoal from the paintings themselves and from charcoal found elsewhere in Chauvets chambers. Two samples yielded dates of 26,000 years ago, but the others clustered between 29,000 and 32,000 years of age. This, the team notes, suggests that there may have been two significant periods of human occupation in the cave before a rockfall sealed it off.

The new dates "confirm that even 30,000 years ago, Aurignacian artists, already known as accomplished carvers, could create masterpieces comparable to the best Magdalenian art," the researchers write. "Prehistorians, who have traditionally interpreted the evolution of art as a steady progression from simple to more complex representations, may have to reconsider existing theories of the origins of art."