for National Geographic News
Vivid frescoes of stampeding bulls, horses, and other animals drawn by Stone Age artisans grace the walls of many European caves. The most spectacular examples are found in Altimera in Spain and Lascaux and Chauvet in France.
For many years the total lack of cave art in Britain dating to the same period perplexed researchers. Britain was inhabited, after all. And throughout the Ice Age, it was linked to mainland Europe by a land bridge.
Last year researchers discovered a handful of simple bird and animal carvings in the caves of Creswell Crags, a limestone gorge in Nottinghamshire, northern England.
The finding proved for the first time that ancient Britons were capable of producing artwork similar to that of their Paleolithic (early Stone Age) counterparts on continental Europe.
Now more extensive surveys undertaken this year reveal that the English caves may hold the most elaborate Ice Age cave-art ceiling ever discovered. Up to 80 carvings of animals, dancing women, and geometric patterns have now been discovered.
Researchers behind the discovery claim it is the most important find from the British Paleolithic since 500,000-year-old hominid remains were uncovered in Boxgrove, West Sussex, in 1993.
"Last year we were astounded to have discovered perhaps half a dozen isolated images," said Paul Pettitt, a University of Sheffield archaeologist behind the find. "Now it seems there are more than ten times that number of carvings."
"This find represents the most richly carved ceiling in the whole of cave art [and] demonstrates that cave art is spread across a much wider geographical area than we originally thought," he said.
Animals depicted on the cave ceiling include bison, wild horses, bears, and ibexspecies which went extinct in Britain at the end of the Ice Age 10,000 years ago. Species still found in the U.K. today, such as red deer stags, are also recorded in the rock.
Other themes include "conga lines" of what are believed to represent dancing women and stylized depictions of female genitalia, Pettittt said. Both forms are typical of continental cave art from the same period.
The dancing women may have some ancient religious or cosmological significance, Pettitt said. "The art is perhaps recording a spiritual dance at some very important religious event."
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