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Wednesday, 3 October, 2001, 18:00 GMT 19:00 UK
Science shows cave art developed early
Cave BBC
Chauvet cave paintings depict horses and other animals
By BBC News Online science editor Dr David Whitehouse

A new dating of spectacular prehistoric cave paintings reveals them to be much older than previously thought.

Prehistorians... may have to reconsider existing theories of the origins of art

Helene Valladas
Carbon isotope analysis of charcoal used in pictures of horses at Chauvet, south-central France, show that they are 30,000 years old, a discovery that should prompt a rethink about the development of art.

The remarkable Chauvet drawings were discovered in 1994 when potholers stumbled upon a narrow entrance to several underground chambers in a rocky escarpment in the Ardeche region.

Because the paintings are just as artistic and complex as the later Lascaux paintings, it may indicate that art developed much earlier than had been realised.

'Discovered nothing'

The analysis was performed by Helene Valladas and colleagues at the Laboratory for Climate and Environment Studies at France's CEA-CNRS research centre at Gif-sur-Yvette.

Graphic BBC
The prehistoric cave art found in France and Spain shows ancient man to be a remarkable artist.

When Pablo Picasso visited the newly-discovered Lascaux caves, in the Dordogne, in 1940, he emerged from them saying of modern art, "We have discovered nothing".

They are obviously very old, but dating them has been difficult because of the small quantities of carbon found on the walls or in the caves. The element is needed, in the form of charcoal or bones, for the standard technique of carbon dating.

To overcome these problems the French researchers have used a newer technique called accelerator mass spectrometry. This separates and counts carbon isotopes found in dead animal and vegetal matter.

'Reconsider theories'

It found the Chauvet drawings to be between 29,700 and 32,400 years old. This is about 10,000 years older than comparable cave art found in the Lascaux caves that are around 17,000 years old.

Wall BBC
Art may have progressed in leaps and bounds
According to Helene Valladas the research shows that ancient man was just as skilled at art as the humans who followed 13,000 years later.

"Prehistorians, who have traditionally interpreted the evolution of prehistoric art as a steady progression from simple to more complex representations, may have to reconsider existing theories of the origins of art," she says.

The research is reported in the scientific journal Nature.

See also:

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Ape-man: Origin of sophistication
09 Jun 99 | Europe
Stepping back 30,000 years
16 Oct 00 | Sci/Tech
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09 Aug 00 | Sci/Tech
Ice Age star map discovered
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