”She knew that Rouzaud’s date of 47,600 years was impressive but suspect.Carbon-dating is only accurate for samples younger than 50,000 years, so the Bruniquel material was hitting the technique’s limits. To get a better estimate, Verheyden assembled a team including archaeologist Jacques Jaubert and fellow stalagmite expert Dominique Genty.

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Most of the 400 pieces had been arranged into two rings—a large one between 4 and 7 metres across, and a smaller one just 2 metres wide. These weren’t natural formations, and they weren’t the work of bears. Recognizing the site’s value, the caver brought in archaeologist Francois Rouzaud.

Using carbon-dating, Rouzaud estimated that a burnt bear bone found within the chamber was 47,600 years old, which meant that the stalagmite rings were older than any known cave painting.

“It’s kind of magical, even without the structures.”After drilling into the stalagmites and pulling out cylinders of rock, the team could see an obvious transition between two layers.

On one side were old minerals that were part of the original stalagmites; on the other were newer layers that had been laid down the fragments were broken off by the cave’s former users.

In 2013, they got permission to study the site and crawled into it themselves.

“I’m not very big, and I had to put one arm before me and one behind to get through,” says Verheyden.

They’ve only now re-entered the limelight because Sophie Verheyden went on holiday.