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No. 2410:
The Vintage of Cave Art

Today, a new look at old art. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Cave art reminds me of witches in the opera Dido and Aeneas. As they plan their mischief, they sing, In our deep vaulted cell, the charm we'll prepare. Well, cave pictures evoke that same arcane magic. Now Science writer Michael Balter tells about a debate over paintings in the Chauvet Caves of south central France. When were they made? 

They might've been done by any of three Stone Age European cultures: The Aurignacian, the Gravettian, and the Magdalenian. The Aurignacian culture dates from at least 32,000 years ago up to the Gravettian culture. And it dates from around 27,000 years ago. The Magdalenian period follows from 18 to 10 thousand years ago. 

The Chauvet paintings are surrounded by charcoal that dates to the beginning of the earliest era, the Aurignacian. Uncorroborated dating of a few charcoal samples from the walls themselves agrees. And the cave's entrance collapsed long before the Magdalenian period. But the pictures were done with the sophistication of Renaissance art. Could anything so good be so old? 

Well, let's look at the three cultures. The more recent people, the Magdalenians were reindeer hunters in southern Europe during the last ice age. Much of their art is in their highly sophisticated harpoon and spear points, and in other carvings. And their artists clearly did make many of the best cave paintings. 

Their predecessors, the Gravettians, lived in more hospitable European climates, and their art was striking. It was they who made the famous Venus figurines -- the so-called Goddesses with their large breasts and flaring hips. The Gravettians were probably first to work with fired ceramics.

Lion manThe Aurignacian period -- the earliest -- included late Neanderthals along with early modern humans. Those humans probably had the first full ability to speak. They did sophisticated flint chipping, and we have carved animals from that period that are quite haunting. A 32,000-year-old figure of a man with a lion's head looks like a study figure for the special effects in a 21st-century science fiction movie. 

And we're back to the lovely Chauvet Cave art. It's a lot like cave art from the later Magdalenian period, even though the physical evidence suggests it's fifteen thousand years older. Stylistic analysis of one picture shows that the artists laid down a background of horned animals, then placed four finely drawn charging horses in the foreground. As we weigh the delicacy and conviction of the picture, it's very hard to accept the chronological evidence -- surely there's a way around it; surely this came later.

But consider something else: While we've had things like writing and the wheel only in the last five thousand years, this level of expressivity is another matter. Perhaps it's been a part of our being ever since we've worn our human form. Our thirty-thousand-year-old forebears might well have made these pictures after all.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

M. Balter, Going Deeper Into the Grotte Chauvet. Science, Vol. 321, 15 August, 2008, pp. 904-905.

See also, the Wikipedia entries for Aurignacian, (The lion man image is from this source.)  Gravettian, Madgalenian, and Chauvet Cave (or its French name, Grotte Chauvet.)