Chauvet cave paintings may be far more recent than generally believed

French archaeologists claim that prehistoric artwork thought to be 36,000 years old is actually 10,000 years younger.

Chauvet Cave is located near the village of Vallon-Pont-d’Arc, Ardèche in southern France. The cave was discovered in 1994 by a team of cavers led by Jean-Marie Chauvet, for whom the site was named. It was the most important cave painting find since the discovery of Lascaux by a group of teenagers during World War II. Unlike the 18,000-year-old Lascaux cave paintings, which became a major tourist attraction after the war and deteriorated badly as a result, Chauvet was rapidly taken over by the French government and a strict conservation program was put in hand.

The artwork comprises 425 panels, depicting rhinoceroses, lions, bears, mammoths, horses, bison, ibex, reindeer, red deer, aurochs, muskoxen, panthers, and the earliest-known representation of an owl turning its head through 180 degrees. Hand prints, red dots and a partial image of a woman associated with a bison have also been discovered.

Radiocarbon dates indicating that the paintings are around 36,000 years old are widely accepted. This would date them to the late Aurignacian period, and make them twice as old as Lascaux. Put another way, the radiocarbon dates suggest that Lascaux is separated from Chauvet by the same interval of time that separates it from the first landing on the Moon. However, archaeologists Jean Combier and Guy Jouve have cast doubt on the great antiquity of the Chauvet paintings.

They argue that on stylistic grounds, the Chauvet artwork cannot be associated with the Aurignacian period. Instead, they claim, the artwork shows affinities to that of the more recent Gravettian and Solutrean periods. Therefore the oldest paintings at Chauvet cannot be more than 26,000 years old. The later ones might even be contemporary with Lascaux.

That Chauvet dates to the Solutrean period was the initial impression of Jean Clottes, one of France’s most eminent prehistorians. Clottes made his assessment in 1995, before any radiocarbon dates were available. His dating of the artwork on purely stylistic grounds was subsequently dismissed as ‘foolhardy’ – but could it be that relying purely on radiocarbon dates is equally unwise?

When first introduced in the 1950s, radiocarbon dating revolutionised archaeology and Willard Libby, the American chemist who pioneered the technique, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1960. However, radiocarbon dating is not infallible. For example, it is very easy for a sample to become contaminated with more recent organic material that will slew results.

In the case of Chauvet, radiocarbon dates were obtained from wood charcoal used as black pigment. However, Combier and Jouve suggest fossil carbon was used as well as charcoal. This was available at Vagnas, a village not far from Vallon-Pont-d’Arc, where there was a quarry yielding lignite and bitumen. A pigment comprising a mixture of fresh charcoal and fossil carbon would present as being significantly older than one containing fresh charcoal alone.

Combier and Jouve note that such a mixture would also have a different isotopic signature to that of pure wood charcoal, i.e. the proportions of the stable carbon isotopes carbon-12 and carbon-13 would differ between the two. It would thus be possible to show whether or not the Chauvet dates were suspect. Such an anomaly has been detected at another cave site, Candamo Cave in Spain, although in this case the ‘old’ carbon leeched into the pigment from the limestone walls of the cave through the action of bacteria.

Accordingly, Combier and Jouve suggest that fresh radiocarbon dates should be obtained for Chauvet, and they believe that it extremely important that more than one laboratory carries out the work.

References:

1. Clottes, J., Cave Art (Phaidon, New York, 2008).
2. Combier, J. & Jouve, G., Chauvet cave’s art is not Aurignacian: a new examination of the archaeological evidence and dating procedures. Quartär 59, 131-152 (2012).
3. Combier, J. & Jouve, G., Nouvelles recherches sur l’identité culturelle et stylistique de la grotte Chauvet et sur sa datation par la méthode du 14C. L’Anthropologie ( (in press) doi:10.1016/j.anthro.2013.12.001) (2014).
4. Mellars, P., A new radiocarbon revolution and the dispersal of modern humans in Eurasia. Nature 493, 931-935 (2006).

Advertisements

70th Anniversary of the discovery of the Lascaux Cave paintings

On 12 September 1940, less than three months after the fall of France, four teenage boys and a small dog named Robot made one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the last century. The group were walking through the sloping woods above Lascaux Manor, near the town of Montignac, which lies on the Vézère River, Dordogne. They were investigating a local legend about an old tunnel, said to connect Lascaux Manor to the ruined Château de Montignac on the other side of the river. Robot was running on ahead of the boys and was attracted to a deep hole in the ground. Covered with overgrowth, it had been exposed by the falling of a tree.

Accounts vary as to what happened next. According to some versions, the little dog fell into the hole and had to be rescued; others claim the boys used their penknives to enlarge the hole, cutting away earth and removing stones; others suggest that the boys first equipped themselves with picks, shovels and lighting before returning to investigate further. Whichever version is correct, they enlarged the hole and at length they were able to slide through feet-first, one by one, along a semi-vertical shaft embedded with stalagmites, finally reaching a dark underground chamber. There, in the flickering glow of their oil-lamp, they saw prehistoric paintings of horses, cattle and herds of deer, brilliantly multicoloured in reds, blacks, browns and ochres, unseen by human eyes for at least 18,000 years.

Despite the unhappy times, news of the discovery spread rapidly. Villagers flocked to the caves and they soon drew visitors from further afield. Among these was the Catholic priest and archaeologist Abbé Henri Breuil, who was able to attest to the great antiquity of the caves and described them as “The Sistine Chapel of Prehistory”. Another early visitor was Pablo Picasso, who on emerging from the cave, is said to have remarked in reference to modern art “We have invented nothing”.

In 1948, the site’s landowners opened the caves as a tourist attraction, and soon they were attracting a quarter of a million visitors annually. Unfortunately, by 1955 it became clear that CO2 exhaled by the large numbers of visitors was promoting the growth of algae, causing significant damage to the paintings. After a number of unsuccessful attempts to ameliorate the problem, the caves were eventually taken over by the French Ministry of Cultural Affairs and closed to the public in 1963. Only five people a day are now admitted and scholars wishing to visit the caves for research purposes face a lengthy wait for a twenty-minute slot. Ordinary visitors have to make do with Lascaux II, a facsimile of the original which opened in 1983.

The paintings are now believed to be between 18,000 to 19,000 years old – four times older than the Pyramids – and are associated with the Solutrean or early Magdalenian period. There are 915 animals depicted, mainly horses, deer, aurochs (wild cattle) and bison – animals which at that time roamed wild on the steppes of Ice Age Europe (Clottes, 2008). Despite their great antiquity, the Lascaux Caves are certainly not the oldest cave paintings known; that title is currently held by the Chauvet Caves near Vallon-Pont-d’Arc, Ardèche, which are almost twice as old. Considered to be of equal artistic merit with Lascaux, the oldest paintings at Chauvet are now thought to be 36,000 years old (Mellars, 2006), associated with the Aurignacian people and dating to a time when two species of human – Neanderthals and Homo sapiens – coexisted in Europe.

Aboriginal Australian Art on Coins

Modern humans are believed to have reached Australia from 40,000 to 50,000 years ago (e.g. Scarre, 2005; Wade, 2007) and possibly even earlier (e.g. Wells, 2002; Oppenheimer, 2003). There is little doubt that these first Australians possessed the capacity for art and were in all probability producing artwork at the same time as their European counterparts were adorning the Chauvet Cave in France, but the earliest known Aboriginal Australian rock art dates from 20,000-30,000 years ago (Scarre, 2005). It is possible that works predating these were located in coastal regions that were inundated when sea-levels rose at the end of the last Ice Age, as indeed happened in Europe where some cave art, such as that at Cosquer Cave near Marseille, can now only be accessed by scuba divers.

Today, Aboriginal Australian art is widely admired and, inevitably, it has featured periodically on Australian coinage. The Royal Australian Mint in Canberra is one of two mints operating in Australia and some of its numismatic offerings are produced in direct competition to those from its older counterpart, the Perth Mint. One of the most appealing coins it has produced is the Kangaroo, a one ounce silver bullion coin with a face value of Aus $1, featuring a changing design based on the marsupial mammal that has become virtually synonymous with Australia. Different artists are featured each year, but the most vibrant designs so far seen were those of the mini-series by Aboriginal Australian artists that ran between 2001 and 2003.

The 2001 design was by Jeanette Timberly, of the Bidjigal Tribe. She was born in La Perouse, NSW.

The 2002 design was by Mark Nodea of the Gija Tribe in Eastern Kimberley, WA. He was born in Derby, WA in 1968. He currently resides in Kununurra and is former Chairperson of the Warmun Art Centre. Mark is a Traditional ochre artist but he works in other media and is also noted for his charcoal sketches and figurative acrylic works.

The 2003 design was by Ray Thomas of the Gunnai people of Victoria. He was born in Melbourne in 1960. See his personal website.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

Cave Art, by Dr Jean Clottes

The jet-set image of the contemporary art scene has now become so powerful that there is a real need to look beyond it and realise that art is not just about money and glamour.

Art is a fundamental part of the human condition. The capacity for art arises from what anthropologists refer to as symbolic thought: the representation of the real world through symbols such as words, drawings and objects. Just how and when these and other modern behavioural attributes arose is still hotly debated, but the oldest work of art so far discovered is a haematite stone decorated with abstract designs, found in the Blombos Cave near Capetown and believed to be 75,000 years old.

Though not the oldest prehistoric art, that of Upper Palaeolithic Europe is undoubtedly the best known. The earliest-known cave paintings, those at Chauvet Cave in southern France, are 32,000 years old. From that time up until the end of the last Ice Age roughly 11,000 years ago, Cro-Magnon cave artists consistently achieved a standard best summed up by Picasso who, on visiting the Lascaux Caves in the Dordogne, is said to have remarked “We have invented nothing”. Not without good reason have these caves, now thought to have been painted 18-19,000 years ago, been described as “The Sistine Chapel of prehistory”.

Born in the French Pyrenees in 1933, Dr. Jean Clottes is one of France’s most eminent prehistorians. Although now formally retired he remains active in the field. In the 1990s he played a leading role in the study of the newly-discovered Chauvet Cave and also the 27,000 year old Cosquer cave near Marseille.

Clottes is however best known for his controversial but highly-plausible theory that prehistoric cave art was associated with shamanic practices, whereby shamans can move between the living and spirit worlds with the aid of spirit helpers and act as mediators between the living and spirit worlds, obtaining supernatural assistance in such matters as healing, hunting and weather.

According to Clottes Cro-Magnon people regarded caves as access points to the spirit world. While the cave art would have reflected mythologies that would almost certainly have shown regional and temporal variation, Clottes’ view is that the overall belief system persisted with little change for over twenty millennia, ending only when the Ice Age finally drew to a close.

CAVE ART is an accessible and well-organised introduction to prehistoric art, featuring over 300 items. Clottes describes his book as “a kind of museum, a collection of prehistoric imagery” and admits that in common with all museums, it cannot exhibit everything. Accordingly the focus is on the cave art of Ice Age Europe, with less emphasis on figurines, engraved bones and other portable works of art. Some will feel that these, and post-Ice Age cave art from other parts of the world, might have been better covered, but Clottes admits that his “museum” is personal.

In keeping with the book’s concept, explanatory texts take second place to the “exhibits” themselves. They are styled after the texts one might find in an actual museum, with each work accompanied by a caption header providing key facts followed by a brief but generally very informative text, often including Clottes’ personal views and interpretations.

This book will be welcomed by anybody with an interest in either art or prehistory, or indeed anybody who wants to know more about the people of Ice Age Europe, whose society endured five times longer than the whole of our recorded history.

(A slightly different version of this book review appeared in Art World Magazine www.artworldmagazine.com Issue 6 August/September 2008 and is my first published work as a professional writer.)

© Christopher Seddon 2008

Ice Age Star Maps?

In September 1940, four French teenagers made one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the last century. Walking in woods in the Dordogne after a storm, they came across a small hole that had been made by the falling of a tree. Using their penknives to enlarge the hole, they cut away earth and undergrowth until at length they were able to slide feet first into the chamber below where, in the flickering glow of their kerosene lamp, they saw prehistoric paintings of horses, cattle and herds of deer.

Although the world at that time was rather preoccupied with other matters, the caves’ fame spread rapidly. Named the Lascaux Caves by the site’s landowners, they were opened as a tourist attraction and by the 1950s were attracting 1,200 visitors a day. Unfortunately by 1955 it became clear that the exhalations of all these visitors were promoting the growth of algae and causing significant damage to the paintings. After a number of unsuccessful attempts to ameliorate the problem, the caves were eventually taken over by the French Ministry of Cultural Affairs and closed to the public in 1963. Visitors today have to make do with Lascaux II, a facsimile of the original.

The paintings are now believed to be 16,500 years old – more than three times older than the Pyramids – and are associated with the Magdalenian culture of the Upper Palaeolithic. There are some 600 animals depicted, mainly horses, deer, aurochs (wild cattle) and bison – animals which at that time roamed wild on the fertile steppes of Ice Age Europe. These magnificent paintings are among the earliest examples of representational art and remain to this day among the finest. They have been compared to the works of Michelangelo and da Vinci and it is said that Pablo Picasso, on visiting the caves, proclaimed “We have discovered nothing [since]”. But what purpose did the unknown Palaeolithic genius or geniuses responsible for the caves have in mind? We don’t know and probably never will know for certain. Many believe the purpose was for magic rituals, possibly intended to bring good luck to hunters, but in 1990s a number of researchers suggested that the caves might contain some of the world’s oldest star maps…

The Great Hall of the Bulls is a vaulted rotunda containing a remarkable wrap-around mural, portraying aurochs, horses and stags. American astronomer F.L. Edge and Spanish researcher L. A. Congregado both noted that a pattern of six dots above the mural’s dominant animal, known to archaeologists as Great Bull No. 18, resembles the Pleiades and also identified a V-shaped set of dots on its face with an open star cluster known as the Hyades and the bright star Aldebaran. These star formations are portions of the present-day constellation of Taurus (the Bull). If Edge and Congregado are correct, Man’s identification of this region of the sky is very old indeed.In his 1995 pamphlet Aurochs in the Sky, Dancing with the Summer Moon, Edge, having identified Taurus in the Great Hall of the Bulls, goes on to consider the other animals portrayed in the mural. His scheme runs from west (sunset) to east (sunrise), which rather confusingly is contrary to the scheme adopted by archaeologists, who numbered the animals from left to right as seen on entering the rotunda.

Edge associates the constellations of Orion (the Hunter) and Gemini (the Twins) with a second aurochs, Bull No. 13 and that of Leo (the Lion) with a third, Bull No. 9. Uniquely for the mural, these two animals stand head-to-head. Other animals are associated with Canis Minor (the Lesser Dog), Virgo (the Virgin), Libra (the Scales), Scorpius (the Scorpion) and Saggitarius (the Archer), the last three being represented by the mural’s last animal (in Edge’s scheme), Figure No. 2, which is generally known as the “Unicorn”, despite having two horns. The Unicorn lies on the opposite side of the rotunda to the “Taurus” Bull; in the skies Scorpius lies opposite Taurus.

If we accept Edge’s interpretations, then the mural as a whole seems to be a representation of just over half of the prominent star-patterns lying along or close to the ecliptic. Today the mural’s lead constellations, Taurus, Orion and Gemini, are prominent in the winter skies. However due to the precession of the equinoxes (a “wobble” of the Earth’s axis which takes 25,700 years to complete a cycle) in the era of Lascaux these constellations would have been prominent in spring. As summer approached, they would have begun to move down towards the western horizon, and at the summer solstice, they would have stood low down on the horizon just after sunset.But instead of the three present-day groupings of the Bull, the Hunter and the Twins, the Magdalenian people saw a pair of bulls, which at this time of the year in Edge’s words, “seemed to walk on the horizon”. The other constellations depicted would have been visible between sunset and sunrise.Edge believes that the stars portrayed in the mural were used in conjunction with the phases of the Moon to predict and keep track of the time of the summer solstice. He believes people in the Dordogne region were observing the phases of the Moon at least 15,000 years before the Lascaux Caves were painted, citing the work of archaeologist Alexander Marshack. In his 1972 book The Roots of Civilization, Marshack claims that bone tallies were being used to record moon-phases as long as 35,000 years ago. One such tally, 32,000 years old, was found in the Dordogne region and is engraved with marks that may show the Moon waxing and waning through two complete cycles (though as I have stated elsewhere this is not the only possible interpretation).

In the era of Lascaux the Moon, during spring and summer, would have reached full when passing through the constellations portrayed in the mural. The full Moon occurring closest to the summer solstice would have occurred in the region of the sky represented by the space between the “Leo” Bull and the “Orion/Gemini” Bull which, recall, stand face-to-face; the full Moon would have appeared caught between the horns of the two animals.The approach of the summer solstice would have been heralded by the waning crescent moon lining up with the horns of the Unicorn; this would occur twice – at seven weeks and three weeks prior to the solstice. Following the solstice a waxing crescent would align with the horns of the “Taurus” Bull; again this would occur twice – at around three weeks and seven weeks after the solstice.Notably the horns of the animals on both sides of the mural face the same way as the crescent Moon would appear in the corresponding part of the sky. This is an early example of the symbolic association that has long existed between the crescent Moon and the horns of a bull, for example in ancient Egypt. The prediction method is not infallible, as in some years two full Moons could occur between the horns of the facing bulls. However, the “true” full Moon occurred when the “Taurus” Bull lay on the horizon at sunset and the Unicorn lay on the horizon just before sunrise. The “false” full Moon, occurring a month earlier, when the Unicorn was not yet in the pre-dawn skies, could thus be ignored.

Dr. Michael Rappenglueck, formerly of the University of Munich, believes the caves contain a second star map. His investigations focussed on the caves’ solitary representation of a human figure, which is located in a gallery known as Shaft of the Dead Man. The highly stylised man has the head of a bird and a rather impressive phallus. He is apparently confronting a partially-eviscerated bison. Below him, a bird is perched atop a post. Rappenglueck believes that these paintings may be an accurate representation of what are now the “summer triangle” of constellations, which include Cygnus (the Swan), Aquila (the Eagle) and Lyra (the Lyre). The eyes of the bison, bird-man and bird represent the first magnitude stars Vega, Deneb and Altair. Precession is once again the key to understanding the significance of this grouping. 16,500 years ago the Pole Star was not the familiar Polaris, but a moderately-conspicuous star known as Delta Cygni, which forms part of the Swan’s wing. Thus at that time, the grouping displayed would have circled the celestial North Pole, never setting, and it would have been particularly prominent in early spring. Rappenglueck believes that the bird-man is a shaman. Shamanism refers to a variety of beliefs and practices involving manipulation of invisible spirits and forces that are held to pervade the material world and affect the lives of the living. The spirit of a shaman is held to be able to ascend to the sky or descend into the underworld. Shamans enter altered states of consciousness, often using natural psychotropic drugs. Shamanism is very common in hunter-gatherer societies and has almost certainly been practiced since earliest times. The word “shaman” was borrowed by anthropologists from the Tungus tribesmen of Siberia and literally means “he who knows”, though shamans are not necessarily male. The bird-on-a-stick may be a spirit helper, guiding the shaman in his ascent to the sky. Rappenglueck believes that even weather vanes today may stem from this tradition.

Rappenglueck has also identified possible evidence of a lunar calendar in the Great Hall of the Bulls. Below one painting, of a deer, there is a row of 29 dots, one for each day of the lunar month. Elsewhere there is a row of thirteen dots to the right of an empty square. Does this represent the waxing of the Moon, with the square representing the New Moon, which cannot be seen? Rappenglueck believes so, though others argue that the dots are simply tallies of hunting kills.

We do not know how much if indeed any of the evidence so far presented for Palaeolithic astronomy is valid, some of the ideas that have been put forward are speculative to say the least, and I will admit to being sceptical. However Edge, Rappenglueck and Congregado are highly respected by the scientific community; their respective methodologies are considered to be perfectly sound; and this intriguing theory is certainly worthy of serious consideration.

The last word must go to Michael Rappenglueck, quoted in October 2000: “They were aware of all the rhythms of nature. Their survival depended on them, they were a part of them.

© Christopher Seddon 2008