But Elalouf says the two species can be distinguished by skull shape, and that the paintings definitely show cave bears.
The impact of the Neolithic dispersal on the western European populations is subject to continuing debate.
But dating the beautiful images – which featured in Werner Herzog’s recent documentary film Cave of Forgotten Dreams – has led to an ugly spat between archaeologists. Within a year of Chauvet’s discovery, radiocarbon dating suggested the images were between 30,000 and 32,000 years old, making them almost twice the age of the famous Lascaux cave art in south-west France (see map).
The result “polarised the archaeological world”, says Andrew Lawson, a freelance archaeologist based in Salisbury, UK. “Nowhere else in western Europe do we know of sophisticated art this early,” he says.
Given the age of the cave bear remains, “it is clear that the paintings are very ancient”, says Elalouf.