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Oldest known cave paintings

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Nature reports on a cover story in the journal Science converning paintings in El Castillo caves in Cantabria in northern Spain:

The world's oldest art: El castillo, Spain

It’s no Mona Lisa, but a smudged red disk in northern Spain has been crowned the world’s earliest cave painting. Dated to more than 40,800 years ago, the shape was painted by some of the first modern humans to reach the Iberian Peninsula — or it may have been done by Neanderthals, residents of the Iberian peninsula for more than 200,000 years.

“There is a very good chance that this is Neanderthal,” says Alistair Pike, an archaeological scientist at the University of Bristol, UK, whose team dated dozens of paintings in 11 caves in northern Spain. But Lawrence Guy Straus, an expert on the caves who is based at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, calls that “a pretty wild speculation,” because it is based on a single date that could overlap with human occupation.

Until now, Chauvet Cave in central France, which is plastered with images of bears, lions and horses, held the title of the world’s oldest cave paintings. The oldest images there are dated to around 39,000 years old, but this is controversial as the assessment relies on radiocarbon dating of charcoal pigments, which are susceptible to contamination from other sources of carbon.

Pike’s team dated the calcite patinas that slowly form over cave art as mineral-rich water trickles over the paintings. The water contains trace levels of radioactive uranium, but not the water insoluble thorium into which the uranium steadily decays. The relative levels of uranium to thorium thus form a clock that records when the calcite layer was formed. The layers can take anywhere from several hundred to several thousand years to form, providing a minimum date for the art, Pike says.

His team collected 50 calcite scrapings from 11 caves, and came up with dates as old as 40,800 years, a minimum age for the disk in El Castillo cave1. That image, as well as other slightly younger disks from Castillo and a club-shaped image from Altamira cave, would have been painted at around the time the first modern humans, called the Aurignacian culture, reached the Iberian Peninsula. Younger paintings in the Spanish caves, including handprints and figurative drawings of animals, date to later human occupations.

Just as impressionism gave way to expressionism in nineteenth- and twentieth-century art, Pike’s team sees artistic trends that correlate with different periods. The first European painters favoured simple geometric shapes such as dots, disks and clubs, whereas their successors painted more graphically complicated handprints and figures.

BBC adds:

“In Cantabria, [in] El Castillo, we find hand stencils that are formed by blowing paint against the hands pressed against the wall of a cave,” explained Dr Alistair Pike from Bristol University, UK, and the lead author on a scholarly paper published in the journal Science.

“We find one of these to date older than 37,300 years on ‘The Panel of Hands’, and very nearby there is a red disc made by a very similar technique that dates to older than 40,800 years.

That is even more startling; the same caves used for 3,500 years! Unlikely that the same culture survived that long. A perspective article in Science stops short of such speculation, but can feed it:

A number of caves in Europe contain exquisite ancient art. Most of the art has been thought to be produced during the time of last glaciation by recently arrived modern humans, but dating of the art has been problematic because the art contains only minimal amounts of carbon for radiocarbon dating. Pike et al. (p. 1409; see the cover; see the Perspective by Hellstrom) have now obtained U-series dates on the calcite crusts that formed over the art from 11 caves in northwestern Spain. The ages from three caves are older than 35,000 years ago, and one dates to nearly 41,000 years ago. The earliest art used primarily red and was relatively formless; animal depictions appeared later. This dating is near the time of the arrival of modern humans and, because Neandertals were also present, complicates identifying the artists.

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Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

June 15, 2012 at 5:04 am

One Response

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  1. Reblogged this on Vague Magazine.

    carabrownstein

    June 15, 2012 at 10:22 pm


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