It’s simply a matter of time. That’s right, geochronology unites these two disciplines. Anthropologists, archaeologists and Earth scientists alike rely on dating techniques to provide context for their interpretation of historical/geological events. Last week in Science a provocative article (archaeologically speaking) has reported uranium series dates for 11 Spanish cave paintings. The provocative aspect is that the dates give a minimum age of 40, 800 years to parts of the work, which is approximately 4, 000 years older than previous estimates taken from the more traditional method of radiocarbon dating. The authors argue that the uranium decay in the calcite overgrowth, gives an indisputable minimum age (unless early humans could paint through calcite, which is unlikely, but I’m no anthropologist).
On the other hand, radiocarbon dating requires carbon which is most often taken from the charcoal or pigment of the painting itself. The argument here is that a piece of charcoal, as an example, could have been lying around for thousands of years before being picked up by the early artist, thereby grossly over estimating the age of the artwork. This is indeed the case in France’s Grotte Chauvet, where questions have arisen as to whether the 37,000 year radiocarbon dates are representative of the superb renditions of horses and rhinos, or merely of the tool used to execute the work. More difficult still, if enough pigment or charcoal can not be gathered then archaeologists have, in some instances, had to rely on tenuous links to other remains and artifacts or to stylistic comparisons.
Paleolithic cave art provides the foundation for understanding the earliest human culture and the origins of artistic expression. The sites under study include the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage sites of Altamira, El Castillo, and Tito Bustillo, Spain. But there are plans to go further afield. The new research demonstrates that the tradition of cave painting emerged very soon after the first ‘modern’ humans arrived in Europe or, and here is where the controversy lies, perhaps Neandertals also engaged in painting caves. The level of sophistication seen at Grotte Chauvet is anomalous for that period of time i.e. 37,000 yrs ago, in comparison to the simpler hand stencils that the team dated for a similar time period. Whether the team will be invited to use this techniques to corroborate other sites is debated almost as fervently as the timing, and development of human creative expression.
The full scientific article can be accessed through subscription to Science here, other wise there is great discussion through their news site here. And if you want to see a really kooky documentary style then Werner Hertzog’s ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’ is a priceless depiction of the scientists working at the Grotte Chaveaut (see below).