The oldest lifelike portraits of human faces have been uncovered in a cave in southern France. The images were first discovered over 50 years ago, but were forgotten after doubts about their authenticity. Now German scientist Dr. Michael Rappenglueck, of Munich University, says these are drawings of real, prehistoric people.

The faces were discovered carved on the floor of a cave at La Marche in the Lussac-les-Chateaux area of France. The cave system was discovered in 1937 by French scientist Leon Pencard, who excavated it for five years. Over 1,500 slabs were found with etched images on them. The pictures are difficult to interpret. Sometimes several images are superimposed on one another. But looking closely, one can see lions, bears, antelope, horses, as well as 155 lifelike human figures.

Dr. David Whitehouse writes that these male and female faces, who are shown wearing robes, hats and boots, may date back 15,000 years. This was long before the rise of the great civilizations and a time when Europe was in an Ice Age. “They have been completely overlooked by modern science,” Rappenglueck says. “They were mentioned in a few books many decades ago and dismissed as fakes – and since then nothing.”

The portraits were carved into limestone slabs that were then carefully placed on the floor. They are not the stick-like figures seen in prehistoric cave paintings such as the images in the Lascaux cave system that probably date back 17,000 years or the ones at Chauvet that go back more than 30,000 years.

Some scientists have wondered why the animals painted on the walls of these caves are so much more lifelike than the human forms depicted with them. Rappenglueck thinks it?s because the more sophisticated human pictures were placed on the floor. If so, such portraits on the floors of other prehistoric caves may have been accidentally destroyed.

One of the first things that archaeologists did when examining such caves was to level and strengthen the floor, not realizing that what was under their feet could be just as significant as what was on the cave walls. In Lascaux, for example, the floor was obliterated to make way for visitors in the 1950s. There is no way of knowing if anything significant was destroyed. “On the floors of one cave I noticed a series of pits arranged in the shape of the Pleiades star cluster,” says Rappenglueck. He?s found drawings of the Pleiades on the walls of many Neolithic caves in several parts of Europe, but until now no similar marks had been found on cave floors.

He speculates that the small holes could have been filled with animal fat and set alight in order to imitate the flickering stars in the sky. Rappenglueck says, “Perhaps this is the origin of the candlelit festivals of the Far East where lighted candles are held in the shape of the Pleiades. Perhaps it is a tradition that stretches back tens of thousands of years into our Stone Age past.”

To see some of these portraits, click here.

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