A staggering collection of ice age artefacts from museums across Europe will showcase the explosion of technical and imaginative skill that experts say marked the human race’s discovery of art

A reindeer bone engraved with two reindeer, part of the ice age art show at the British Museum. Photograph: British Museum

Rail engineer Peccadeau de l’Isle was supervising track construction outside Toulouse in 1866 when he decided to take time off to indulge his hobby, archaeology. With a crew of helpers, he began excavating below a cliff near Montastruc, where he dug up an extraordinary prehistoric sculpture. It is known today as the Swimming Reindeer of Montastruc.

Made from the 8in tip of a mammoth tusk, the carving, which is at least 13,000 years old, depicts two deer crossing a river. Their chins are raised and their antlers tipped back exactly as they would be when swimming. At least four different techniques were used to create this masterpiece: an axe trimmed the tusk, scrapers shaped its contours; iron oxide powder was used to polish it; and an engraving tool incised its eyes and other details.

It is superbly crafted, wonderfully observed and shows that tens of thousands of years ago human beings had achieved a critical intellectual status. They had moved from making objects merely for physical use, such as stone axes, and had begun to create works that had no purpose other than to reflect the patterns and sights they were experiencing around them. Homo sapiens had discovered art.

“There is evidence that pigments were being used by our ancestors in Africa 150,000 years ago and that later, around 70,000 years ago, they were engraving geometric patterns on objects,” says Professor Steven Mithen of Reading University. “But it was not until modern humans reached Europe more than 40,000 years ago – when there appears to have been an explosion of technical creativity – that art, as we understand it today, appeared. The results were breath-taking. Indeed, I don’t think they have ever been surpassed.”

Consider the Montastruc reindeer. The slightly smaller of the two animals has got six little nipples while the larger, behind it, has male genitalia. “Both animals have antlers, however, which indicates we are dealing with reindeer, the only deer species whose females grow antlers,” says Cook. “Crucially, males lose theirs in December but females keep theirs. So this is not a winter scene though the female’s flank, beautifully shaded by the sculptor, shows she has grown a thick coat. So winter must be close. In other words, this is an autumnal scene, a time of migration. Hence the swim across a river. It is all beautifully observed.”

The carving was made by a member of the Cro-Magnons, hunter-gatherer descendants of the first modern humans to occupy Europe around 45,000 years ago, and who lived there through the last ice age, which began 40,000 years ago and endured until 10,000 years before present. Reindeer, with their rich meat and thick pelts, would have been vital to tribes’ survival and the Montastruc sculpture, with its delicate rib cages, antlers and coats, show how carefully the Cro-Magnons must have observed them. As Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, says: “This work was created by someone who had spent a long time watching reindeer.”

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