The ministry said French and British specialists had determined that charcoal pigments of two rhinoceroses and a bison found in the Chauvet cave in the southeastern Ardeche were between 30,340 and 32,410 years old.
The oldest previously known cave painting has been dated at 27,110 years old and shows the simple outline of a human hand; it was discovered in 1992 near Marseilles, France. The art at Lascaux, which is similar in style to that in the newly found cave, is thought to be about 15,000 to 17,000 years old.
Archaeologists were surprised by the early date for the Chauvet drawings; the team studying the great underground gallery, with more than 300 animal images, many of them leaping or running across great panels, had initially estimated they had been painted perhaps 20,000 years ago.
The culture ministry said the test results, which ''make these the oldest known paintings in the world,'' have ''overturned the accepted notions about the first appearance of art and its development,'' and show that ''the human race early on was capable of making veritable works of art.'' Until now, experts have generally thought that early drawing and painting began with crude and clumsy lines and became more sophisticated only over centuries.
''This date comes as a shock to many of us,'' said Jean Clottes, a French specialist who has led the exploration. ''It upsets all our thinking about how style evolved.
''We can no longer argue that the development of art was linear, because we see now that it was not just a matter of a crude sort of art at first and then a slow improvement. This shows us that early art, just like art of the past few thousand years, had ups and downs, that there were periods when art had a heyday or was less important, and that there were artists who were more backward or more gifted.
''Here we are talking about a time at the beginning of our species, and we see that those early painters were as capable as much later artists.''
Chauvet has turned out to be an archaeological treasure trove, full of ancient human and bear footprints, flints, bones and hearths. The government has said the cave will probably remain closed to the public for many years and used exclusively as a study site.
But since December, scientists have penetrated deeper into the cavern to search for new art and other signs of ancient human life. Since the initial exploration, they have found a fifth chamber with paintings.
The explorers have also discovered new creatures in ochre, hues of charcoal and red hematite. Researchers have now documented and photographed close to 300 animals and say there may be more.
The work has been painstakingly slow. Workers can advance only on hard or rocky soil and must sidestep the many soft and spongy areas in the humid cavern in order not to disturb vital evidence.
Source: Orlando Sentinel