The first known engraving from France dates to 38,000 years ago and depicts an aurochs, which was a very large ancestor of today's cattle.
The engraving, reported in the journal Quaternary International, is also the world's oldest known imagery that combines animal representation with abstract forms. The etching includes multiple dots seen prominently around the aurochs.
The engraved stone was created by the Aurignacians, the first Homo sapiens to arrive in Europe, who lived 43,000 to 33,000 years ago.
"We can only imagine the interest on the part of the Aurignacian engravers, perhaps the massive size of the animal," said co-author Randall White, a professor at New York University's Center for the Study of Human Origins.
He explained to Seeker that these animals were among the largest plant-eaters of late Pleistocene Europe, when Neanderthals were still around. The aurochs stood nearly 7 feet tall and weighed about 2000 pounds.
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The rock-shelter site of the engraving, called Abri Blanchard, has undergone multiple excavations over the years, and has yielded "an abundance of personal ornaments, many from exotic raw materials from the Pyrenees, the Atlantic shore and the Mediterranean coast," White said. "This may suggest that Abri Blanchard may have been a meeting point for Aurignacian groups where trade, storytelling and rituals may have occurred."
"Aurignacians may have had some special symbolic relationship with aurochs," given that an aurochs or bison horn core was "sculpted into a phallus, which was found in one of the fireplaces at (Abri) Blanchard in the old excavations," he said.
White, lead author Raphaelle Bourrillon and their colleagues suspect the aurochs may have served as a symbol for sexual virility. They also have not discounted the possibility that a Neanderthal created the engraving, although one human tooth has been found at the site so far "and it appears not to be (from) a Neanderthal," White said.
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He noted that other early European engravings tend to be on surfaces that face downwards, which "may imply some kind of purposeful action" once the engraving was completed.
Other cave art experts have speculated that the depictions held spiritual or magical meaning, and could have been used in related ceremonies. In this case, however, White said the engraved block "was found amidst the debris of everyday life - and not isolated from it," suggesting more mundane motives.
There is no evidence for domestication of the aurochs at the time of the engraving, or that humans drank the animal's milk then or used aurochs to transport goods. The Aurignacians were hunter-gatherers on the move. They are known to have killed aurochs for food, and also to have used the animal's skin and bones and horns for crafting objects.
The researchers believe that the Aurignacians were fascinated by lions too since their later art show these big cats in pursuit of aurochs.
As for the dots in the engraving, no one yet knows their meaning.
White said, "These took considerable effort to produce and they preceded the engraving of the animal itself. What precisely these arrangements are an abstraction of is unclear."
Top photo: The 38,000-year-old engraved aurochs from the site Abri Blanchard, France. Credit: Musée National de Préhistoire collections - photo MNP - Ph. Jugie