The Japan Times
June 21, 1999

Caveboy left footprints in the clay of time

LYON, France (AFP-Jiji) The oldest footprints of modern-day man have been found in the Chauvet cave discovered in 1994 in southern France, the Culture Ministry said Wednesday.

The footprints, between 20,000 and 30,000 years old and believed to be those of an adolescent, were discovered in the clay floor of the Chauvet cave in the Ardèche region.

They are "the oldest ever discovered in the world for our species, Homo sapiens sapiens," the ministry said in a statement issued in this southeastern city.

Homo sapiens sapiens is a subspecies of the genus Homo, or two-legged hominids, which includes existing humans and certain extinct species of humans.

The ministry said archaeologists had found three prints of a left foot, one of the right, which in modern times would belong to a male 130 cm tall and aged between 8 and 10.

The Chauvet cave was named after Jean-Marie Chauvet, an amateur speleologist employed by the local archaeological service who stumbled on the cave on Dec. 18, 1994, while on a weekend potholing trip with two friends. Chauvet became involved in a court dispute with three Culture Ministry officials, who he alleged tried to squeeze him out of rights to the exploitation of the cave.

A Lyon court rejected his claim in a ruling Friday.

The two friends who discovered the cave with him told AFP that they had seen the footprints, as well as fingerprints, back in 1994 and had signaled the find to the Culture Ministry.

"This is not a new discovery by the scientists," said Eliette Brunel. "We found them and protected them from the very beginning and pointed them out so no one would walk on them." She said there were also prints from a wolf and an ibex.

The cave holds the world's oldest known cave art, with 447 paintings believed to date back to 30,000 B.C.

The discovery of the footprints was allegedly made last month during a new exploration of the cave, in which some 30 new cave paintings also came to light. They included sketches of mammoth, bison, horses, deer and a rhinoceros. Research was conducted by cave specialist Jean Clottes.

Much more ancient footprints belonging to Australopithecus, an extinct genus, which date back to more than 3 million years ago, have been found in Tanzania.

According to carbon 14 dating, the Chauvet cave is far older than the Lascaux site in southern Dordogne or the Altamira site in Spain, both dating back to around 15,000 years B.C., or than the underwater Cosquer cave near Marseille, dated to 27,110 B.C.

Closed for the moment to the public, the Paleolithic cave, which is some 490 meters long, features red-ocher and black wall paintings of woolly rhinoceroses, bears, lions, bison, aurochs, mammoths and panthers.

The skull of a bear was found atop a rock in a corner of the cave, leading to speculation about an archaic Homo sapiens bear cult.

WHO WENT THERE? - The oldest footprints of a modern human yet discovered, believed to be between 20,000 and 30,000 years old, have been identified on the floor of a cave in southern France. REUTERS PHOTO