Slow or fast artistic development

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The latest news regarding European cave art artists is that Neanderthals rather than modern humans (Homo Sapiens) may have created the celebrated cave paintings. A new dating method pushes the earliest cave art back to 41,000 thousand years ago rather than 37,000 years ago. 40,000 years ago Neanderthals were still living in Spain, while modern humans were just entering Europe. The earliest cave decorating consists of a red disk with a minimum age of 40.8 thousand years (El Castillo Cave, Spain), 37.3 thousand years for a hand stencil (Tito Bustillo Cave) and, the depiction of female genitalia (Abri Castanet, France) to 37,000 years ago, at least as old as the Chauvet Cave. The earliest artifacts associated with Homo Sapiens (in Spain, Italy, and France) dates to 41,600 years. The oldest known modern human fossils, from the Pestera cu Oa-se site in Romania, date back 39,000 years.

However improbable this may seem at first, two archeologists from Spain found that Neanderthals wore mollusk shells as jewelry and used them for mixing pigments. Most anthropologists agree that the big-brained Neanderthals were not lumbering dimwits according to popular belief. Although art is rare in Neanderthal sites and common in modern human sites, this discrepancy could be explained by lower population densities within the Neanderthals which would then affect the overall spread with and be-tween outlying groups. Nonetheless, this shows that the Neanderthals were capable of artistic expression and symbolic behaviour.. (Signs of Symbolic Smarts in Neandertal Jewelry, January 11, 2010, Joso Zilhao)

“Now in a paper published online today in Science, dating expert Alistair Pike of the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom and archaeologist Paul Pettitt of the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, together with colleagues in Spain, applied a technique called uranium-series (U-series) dating to artworks from 11 Spanish caves. U-series dating takes advantage of the fact that calcite, the form of calcium carbonate in stalactites and stalagmites, contains trace amounts of radioactive uranium-238, which decays to form atomic elements including radioactive thorium-230. By measuring the ratio of thorium-230 and uranium-238, daters can estimate how long ago the calcite was laid down.” Still problematic for dating the art is that these dates “may not reflect how much time has passed be-tween the creation of the art and the formation of the cal-cite layer.” (Did Neandertals paint early cave art? Science AAAS, June 14, 2012)

Radiocarbon dating has always been the most used method of dating but it requires organic materials, such as bone or charcoal, with which to measure. This has always been difficult task and archaeologists often have to make assumptions. The famous Chauvet Caves in France were radiocarbon dated and the incredibly rendered bisons, horses, reindeer and rhinos, which were done in charcoal, have been estimated to be 37,0000 years old.

The implications of this are twofold: perhaps sophisticated artistic skills took longer to develop than first thought. Secondly, these time estimates may open up the possibility that Neanderthals also engaged in cave painting.

The Chauvet Caves, with its refined animals, has always been heralded as depicting our advanced artistic talents. This new dating technique may put that into question. Perhaps, as some archaeologists have argued, artists could have entered Chauvet at a much later date. It seems that the Chauvet cave is an exception to the rule of cave art. Most cave art is nonfigurative and “consists of dots, disks, lines, and hand stencils.” This new dating technology could have implications for dating the art in other European caves. The status of the complex 37,000 year old Chauvet art is now being questioned!

Considering the stylistic difference between most Europe-an caves (simple imagery) and the Chauvet cave (complex imagery), the dating of the earliest cave art back to 40,000 thousand to 41,000 thousand years, is it fair to assume that cave painting sophistication took much longer than first thought? The Chauvet caves may be younger than first assessed. If the Chauvet caves are proven to be younger, this will give us a good artistic timeline. What is of real interest here is that Neanderthals may have in effect been the initiators of cave art. What are your thoughts?