Chauvet Pont D'arc

14 Apr 2016

At ... and ... we have a story about dating the cave art, a head scratching affair. The cave is situated in southern France and is a World Heritage Site. It's walls are decorated with hand prints and drawing of 14 different species of animal - and charcoal from the embers of camp fires in the cave were used to draw some of them. These include bears, horses, woolly rhinoceros, and various big cats. It was believed until recently the cave art was dated between 22,000 and 18,000BC, during the Late Glacial Maximum. This view was attributable to the skill of the artists. The depictions were so good they were dated to a fairly recent period. It was thought art any earlier should display more evidence of the crude. However, this view came under the microscope a few years ago - and was found wanting. What were lions doing living in a savannah environment in the middle of the maximum extent of the ice sheet? It was suggested the art dated much earlier, preceding the LGM - but here the theory came against a brick wall as modern humans only entered western Europe after 40 to 35,000 years ago. Prior to that date Europe was populated by grunts - the much maligned Neanderthals.

After 15 years of laborious 'scrape and date' a series of C14 dates has been produced which it is hoped will satisfy both camps as they carefully exclude the Neanderthals. Dates produced from the charcoal used to draw the outlines of animals was published a year or so ago but we now have a collection of C14 dates, using the bones of some of the animals found in the recesses of the cave. It is assumed they died in situ rather than being washed inside by a catastrophic event of some kind but it is remarkable that the dates produced do actually coincide with such a catastrophe (between 40 and 30,000 years ago). The dates are divided into two sets - which may actually reflect the actuality of a double catastrophe (known from elsewhere). These are at 37,00 to 33,000 years ago, followed by non-occupation of the cave by humans it is suggested, and 31,000 to 28,000 years ago. We might suppose this is a conservative estimate as the problem has always been that Chauvet displays evidence of a high level of proficiency - and humans prior to 40,000 years ago are not thought to have been too clever. Several ways of looking at this. Are the dates correct and the bones date some kind of event - or have the dates of the bones of animals been used to restrict a more ancient date for the human art?