The newly found paintings, depicting woolly rhinos, leopards, panthers, lions, mammoths, ibex, wild oxen, horses, bears, hyena and a possible owl, date from 20,000 to 18,000 years ago, the height of the last Ice Age.
The masterpieces adorn caverns 500 metres inside a low mountain next to a rocky canyon near the small town of Vallon-Pont-d'Arc, in the Ardeche region north-west of Avignon.
In one gallery, where no light penetrates, archeologists have found what appears to be an altar stone, with the head of a giant bear placed on it.
On some of the cavern walls are red handprints, probably made with ochre by the artists who painted the animals. The archeologists have also found footprints, stone tools and fragments of the red ochre.
The find was made last month and kept secret until yesterday. The caves have not been fully explored and hundreds more paintings may be found.They are almost certainly of religious and social importance but their function remains a mystery. The variety of animals portrayed surpasses even Lascaux, and the rarity of many of the beasts may give a clue why they were painted. Many of the creatures - especially lions and other felines - were not hunted by people and may represented gods or sacred ancestors.
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