Why does the world's oldest cave art show a vagina?

By now you've probably heard: a team of archaeologists has discovered what appear to be engravings of "vulvar representations" on the walls of a cave in southern France.

The researchers claim the carvings are at least as old as etchings discovered in France's Chauvet Cave, long recognized as home to the most ancient cave art on Earth. But these aren't just the oldest cave engravings ever discovered — they're of a vagina, remember? And that could make them some of the earliest known examples of humanity's relationship with sexuality.

Before we begin, let's address something. I'm sure many of you are looking at the image up top and thinking,"What? Vagina? Where?" That's ok. Nobody blames you if you don't see a vagina. However, it bears mentioning that the discovery is an important one, regardless of whether or not the engraving is, in fact, of female genitalia . As Science's Michael Balter points out, very little is known about the artistic inclinations of Europe's first settlers:

Homo sapiens first colonized Europe from Africa around 40,000 years ago. But until the early 1990s, there was little firm evidence that our species engaged in sophisticated artistic activity that early. Many archaeologists assumed that modern humans developed their artistic skills only gradually, culminating in spectacular galleries like the 15,000-year-old painted caves at Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain. The discovery of Chauvet changed all that and convinced most researchers that early artists had brought their skills with them from Africa.

The discovery of any 37,000-year-old cave art is therefore big news. The fact that these carvings were discovered not in Chauvet, but Abri Castanet — a rock shelter in France's Vezere valley —reinforces the chronological accuracy of other, previously dated discoveries; strengthens the hypothesis that humans first colonized Europe 40,000 years ago; and provides independent verification of the age of other Castanet rock art.

But this isn't any old cave art; it could be a carving of a vagina — so let's get back to talking about that.

Why does the world's oldest cave art show a vagina?

Examples of artwork dating from the Upper Paleolithic Era (ca. 40,000—10,000 years ago) are rare. Having said that, the vast majority of these sculptures, paintings, and carvings are actually of animals. Human representations, by comparison, are especially uncommon; and representations of genitalia — female genitalia especially — are among the rarest of all.

Researchers like Javier Angulo and Marcos García, whom we spoke to about prehistoric penis sculptures back in November — believe that artistic representations of genitalia from the Paleolithic may shed light on something called sexual hominization, i.e. the process by which things like eroticism and sexuality emerged in an anthropological context.

According to Angulo and García, the lack of paleolithic art depicting the human form is one of the greatest challenges facing our understanding of prehistoric sexuality. The discovery of an artistic representation of a vulva, therefore (especially one dating as far back as 37,000 years ago) adds another piece to a small but growing puzzle that hints at the origins of our relationship to sex as something that transcends biological necessity, and enters a realm of what García describes as "pleasure, play" and "eroticism."

The more representations of the human form we find — be it a bare-breasted Venus figurine, or a crude drawing of a vulva, scrawled on the walls of a prehistoric cave shelter — the closer we come to understanding our sexual past.

The researchers' findings are published in the latest issue of PNAS. Read more about Paleolithic penis art here.

Top image via Randall White