Dating paleolithic art


Uranium-series dating of carbonate formations overlying Paleolithic art : interest and limitations

The practice of cave art in Europe thus began up to 10, years earlier than previously thought, indicating the paintings were created either by the first anatomically modern humans in Europe or, perhaps, by Neanderthals. As traditional methods such as radiocarbon dating don't work where there is no organic pigment, the team dated the formation of tiny stalactites on top of the paintings using the radioactive decay of uranium. This gave a minimum age for the art. Where larger stalagmites had been painted, maximum ages were also obtained.

Hand stencils and disks made by blowing paint onto the wall in El Castillo cave were found to date back to at least 40, years, making them the oldest known cave art in Europe, , years older than previous examples from France. A large club-shaped symbol in the famous polychrome chamber at Altamira was found to be at least 35, years old, indicating that painting started there 10, years earlier than previously thought, and that the cave was revisited and painted a number of times over a period spanning more than 20, years.

The creation of art by humans is considered an important marker for the evolution of modern cognition and symbolic behavior, and may be associated with the development of language.

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One argument for its development here is that competition for resources with Neanderthals provoked increased cultural innovation from the earliest groups of modern humans in order to survive. Alternatively, cave painting started before the arrival of modern humans, and was done by Neanderthals. That would be a fantastic find as it would mean the hand stencils on the walls of the caves are outlines of Neanderthals' hands, but we will need to date more examples to see if this is the case.

S1 of the additional documentation in Pike et al. Finally, we should emphasize the non-negligible risk of removing a variable quantity of the substrate of geological age when sampling these fine veils, as demonstrated by Fontugne et al. Application of 14 C dating to calcareous deposits and relevance of U-Th cross dating with other methods. Even though 14C dating of calcite is not exempt from problems, particularly in connection with the presence of dead carbon, the comparison of the results of U-Th and 14C methods applied to calcareous deposits from cave art walls is a necessity in testing their respective reliability and consistency.

The problem of the incorporation of dead carbon lacking or poor in 14C , deriving from the surrounding limestone or from ancient carbon in the soil, has been the subject of numerous studies see for example Vogel and Kronfeld, ; Genty et al. This cross dating is also facilitated by the fact that the analytical techniques accelerator mass spectrometry for 14C and multi collector inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry for U-Th requires only very small samples; around 20 milligrams to a few hundred milligrams for 14C and U-Th respectively, which limits the sample size and the resulting destruction of the paintings.

Three samples removed from different points of this drapery were dated by the two methods. The ages obtained — around 9, years — agreed well in only one case out of three, suggesting that the paintings, aged in excess of 10, years, were produced before the arrival of the Austronesian population. For the third sample, however, the U-Th age was three times greater circa 27, years than that of the 14C circa years , suggesting that the U-Th dating was affected by a significant systematic error linked to the degradation of the drapery by the runoff waters and to the resulting dispersal of the uranium.

A similar approach associating the comparison of U-Th and 14C ages was employed in the decorated shelters of the Serra da Capivara National Park in Piaui Brazil on the calcareous deposits formed above the paintings Fontugne et al. For some of these samples, the comparison of the results demonstrated the impact of the limestone contaminations of the wall on the U-Th ages, which were found to be considerably older than the 14C results. In still other cases such as those of the U-Th and 14C cross dating of a speleothem from the Altamira cave in Spain, see Labonne et al.

These three articles Plagnes et al. It is regrettable that a similar approach was not employed by Pike et al. These examples also demonstrate the importance of carrying out multiple datings when the thickness of the sample allows it in order to test the stratigraphic order of the results. Finally, we should mention other dating methods, as yet unused in the case of decorated caves, which are based on disequilibria in the uranium family and employ measurements of radium Ra or protactinium Pa,.

These have already proved to be of interest in establishing cross-chronologies and validating or disproving U-Th dates of calcareous deposits. But a reverse scenario may also take place, with the dispersal of the uranium leading to the overestimation of the age of the sample Fruijtier et al. Even though they are difficult to implement for small samples of calcite removed from decorated walls, such cross-dating methods are essential in proposing a reliable chronology for these calcitic deposits whose geochemical development is always complex.

The preceding paragraphs describe the numerous difficulties inherent in the application of the U-Th method to dating cave art works, and the extreme caution that must be taken when interpreting the results in the case of a single analysis carried out on a calcite deposit covering such representations. There are two reasons for stating these reservations. First of all, there are the intrinsic factors linked to the hydrogeological phenomena involved and then there are the factors linked to the hypotheses imposed by the method.

In terms of the dating of stalagmitic formations, the application of the U-Th method to the dating of thin layers of calcite covering prehistoric art works presents a much more difficult problem, as we are unaware of which humid period the calcite formed in, or the duration of the phenomenon. If we analyze the entire thickness of the deposit, which is often the case, we obtain an average age that may be unrelated to the actual age of the prehistoric work. For the age determined to be similar to that of the age sought, the calcite must have been deposited.

Such a concatenation of circumstances must be exceptional. What is more likely is that calcite deposition will have occurred during periods in which the climatic conditions were favorable humid , between the creation of the work and the present day, and that it will have taken place over a long period. If this is the case, the age that we will obtain will represent only a small fraction of the time that has actually elapsed. On the archaeological interest of a terminus ante quem.

Geochronologists are aware that this method provides only a terminus ante quem and that this can be far removed from the creative act that we wish to date.

This is clearly the prevailing situation in the majority of cases involving dating calcite veils. The growth of the calcite veils is controlled principally by environmental factors external temperature and precipitation and, like the. Many of the calcite deposits covering cave art works may therefore be Tardiglacial or Holocene the last 12, years or may date from a period of relative warming during a glacial period, which moves us closer to the creation date of the works.

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Iberian paintings are Europe's oldest cave art, uranium-series dating study confirms

The ages determined for the calcite veils may also represent an average of several phases of growth. However, this information provides useful elements for reflection once the validity of the ages has been verified on a methodological level. In this way, the oldest age obtained for a panel is an element that contributes to a geochronological discussion.

This is the approach employed in the study of the cave of Creswell Crags in the United Kingdom Pike et al.


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Six of the results fell between and years, two around years, and among the three dates before 10, years, there were two in the interval 13, — 14, years. The authors considered that these latter dates provided relevant information on the period in which the engravings were created, particularly as they fell into the calibrated interval 13, — 15, cal. BP deduced from the 14C dating of anthropomorphically modified bone splinters present in the archaeological level.


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Even if this coincidence does not provide irrefutable proof, it contributes to the accumulated geochronological data that enable human activity in the cave to be located in time. While it is true that these dates do not contradict the attribution of the art works to the Upper Paleolithic, on the basis of the terminus ante quem principle, they do not provide any new information. In a great number of cases, the terminus ante quem obtained by U-Th is significantly later i. For example, around two-thirds of the dates obtained by Pike et al.

To resolve the question posed by the spread over time of the calcite formation, it is necessary to carry out a very fine analysis of the microstratigraphy of the deposits in order to separately date very thin layers. This was carried out successfully in the cave in East Timor mentioned above Aubert et al. Substantially different results have sometimes been reported for samples taken only a few centimeters apart. For example, in the cave of La Garma, a braid of calcite crossing the back of an ibex drawn on the wall fig. Breuil attributed this set of red symbols to the earliest phase of Cantabrian rock art — Aurignacian tracing by H.

The mismatch between these values obtained by two different techniques within a radius of barely 50 cm demonstrates that either the calcareous deposits were subject to phenomena relating to open geochemical systems as described above, or that the calcite deposits post-dating the representations are not contemporary. In this way, the uncertainties linked to the duration of the formation of the deposit and to local variations mean that we obtain only average values which act as a terminus ante quem that may in fact be relatively far removed from reality.

The question deserves discussion in relation to the oldest ages appearing in the article by Pike et al. Given their archaeological impact, it is essential to confirm the validity of these results by means of more detailed geochemical analysis and by other independent datings.

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Chronological models for Cantabrian Palaeolithic art. The chronological models for cave art, in particular those applying to the Cantabrian region, have been subject to major fluctuations over time. Leroi-Gourhan, in his revision of the Breuil system, is in turn in favor of a much shorter chronology from which the Aurignacian is practically absent.

Regarding the Cantabrian region, he attributes the majority of the pre-Magdalenian works to his style III, i. Over recent decades, Spanish researchers have carried out an in-depth re-examination of the Cantabrian stylistic chronology, which has led them to propose older Fig. In the cave of Pondra, for example, a calcareous crust was dated to 27, years by TL, thereby providing an ante quem age for an underlying red deer protome fig.

We have mentioned above the case of the red figures from La Garma dated by TL and U-Th to between 26, and 37, years. Finally, we should examine the 14C datings carried out on small pieces of charcoal collected from drawings and paintings in the decorated caves of Altamira, El Castillo, Covaciella and La Garma, all of which corresponded to the Magdalenian period Valladas et al.

Art of the Upper Paleolithic

Modern Humans or Neanderthals? Particular interest has been paid by Pike et al. Potsherds in a style reminiscent of early Japanese work have been found at Kosan-ri on Jeju island , which, due to lower sea levels at the time, would have been accessible from Japan. The rock shelter features prehistoric paintings of fish, including the barramundi, wallabies, crocodiles, people and spiritual figures. Most of the paintings are located on the shelter's ceiling, but many are found on the walls and pillars of the site. The painting on the ceiling has been securely dated to before 27, years ago.

Faceted and use-striated hematite crayons have been recovered from nearby locations Malakunanja II and Nauwalabila 1 in strata dated from 45, to 60, years old which suggests that the Gabarnmung shelter may have been decorated from its inception.

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