virus: Fwd: Footprints May Be Oldest in Europe, French Say

Wade T.Smith (
Thu, 10 Jun 1999 08:37:15 -0400

Footprints May Be Oldest in Europe, French Say


PARIS -- In the darkness of an underground cave lined with prehistoric paintings, French scientists believe they have discovered the oldest footprints of humans in Europe.

Embedded in damp clay, the imprints, slightly more than nine inches long, appear to be those of a boy, 8 or 10 years old, who was walking barefoot between 25,000 and 30,000 years ago, prehistorians who have studied the cave said Wednesday.

They said the dates are only hypothetical because there is no precise way to determine when the markings were made in the moist soil. But Michel-André Garcia, one prehistorian who has studied the site, said that the carbon datings in the cave and the context make this "a very strong hypothesis."

The four footprints were found in the Ardéche region of southern France, deep inside the Chauvet cave. Its chambers, decorated with extraordinary ice-age paintings, were discovered in 1994.

Formal study of the prehistoric site had been blocked by still-unresolved lawsuits over who owned the land and therefore the rights to the caves underneath.

But archeologists began formally exploring the underground caves a year ago.

They see it as a unique treasure chest because it is the first large cavern from the Paleolithic era to be found undisturbed, its entrance sealed by an ancient landslide. Some of the panels of stone etchings and multicolored paintings have been dated at 30,000 to 32,000 years old, making this the oldest cave art known to science.

Jean Clottes, the prehistorian who heads the team of explorers, said 11 carbon datings have been made from material in the cave, including samples from campfires, torch marks and paintings. They are dated between 23,000 and 32,000 years old.

"We have nothing more recent than that," Clottes said. "So we believe the
footprints belong to that time period, probably to the last passage of humans in the cave some 25,000 years ago." That means, he said, that the footprints are the oldest known in Europe and belong to Cro-Magnon man, the first humans known to paint.

The earliest fossilized human footprints were discovered in South Africa in 1997 in sandstone estimated to be 117,000 years old.

The amateur spelunkers who came upon the French cave in 1994 had already reported seeing footprints of bears and humans. But it was not until last month that scientists examined the footprints.

Garcia, a prehistorian with the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, who examined the footprints closely, said that they are in an undisturbed far end of the main chamber, under a three-foot-high passage between two caves.

Overhead are several charcoal marks that appear to have been made by a person who rubbed a torch on the stone to make the torch burn brighter.

The torch marks above the footprints were recently estimated to be 26,000 years old through radiocarbon dating. "It's impossible to prove that the marks on the ceiling and on the floor are connected," Garcia said.

He said he thought the imprints belonged to a boy because of their width.
"They are very clear and absolutely like a modern foot." Ancient human
footprints have been found before in other caves in France, but they were held to be more recent.

The two-week exploration in May produced other valuable finds. Clottes said the group had found an eight-inch-long prehistoric spear carved from a mammoth tooth.

The team also found 31 new paintings and engravings in the Chauvet cave, bringing the gallery to 447 images of 14 animal species.

Experts say the paintings here are exceptional because of their age and the skill of their makers and, not least, because they are mostly images of dangerous animals.

Clottes said he believed more discoveries will be made.

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company