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The knotty subject of cave art … did Neanderthals have the ability to stick their hands in paint and leave marks on the walls, or better still, did they actually compose pictures

21 November 2012

The comes from Current World Archaeology 55 (november 2012 issue) see www.world-archaeology.com, and 'Redating Ice Age Art: were Neanderthals the first artists in Europe?' which comes as a result of a new dating technique, and was first reported in the journal Science earlier in the year. Alistair Pike and Paul Pettit did the research and wrote the article (and the paper) and begin by outlining the fact that cave art is thought to span the Late Glacial Maximum which is roughly the same as the Upper Palaeolithic in Europe, basically 30,000+ to 10,000 years ago. The new dating methodology seems to have backdated the art, in those few places where it has been applied, and here is the rub. The new dates go back to the period when Neanderthals were being replaced by modern humans;Gravettian, Magdalenian or Solutrean in culture. This was at some point between 40 and 30,000 years ago, but coinciding with the point where the C14 method becomes unworkable – various reasons have been hoisted to explain this, such as a long peak or plateau event. Firestone, West and Warwick-Smith, in The Cycle of Cosmic Catastrophes, suggested the possibility of a supernovae explosion to explain a possible massive injection of C14 into the atmosphere, but others have different ideas. Anyway, at this particular moment in time the Neanderthals either died out completely or a few nests of them persisted in odd corners of the world, such as the extremities of Iberia. Hence, it is not known for absolute that Neanderthals were still alive and kicking at the time of the new dates – but it is a possibility. And that is worth licking the lips at as it makes a monkey out of some fine evolutionary thinking, and calculations. Personally, the evidence is lacking from what I can see, but there is that intangible feeling that perhaps, maybe Neanderthals did enjoy making images by using ochre and other minerals they found while digging and prodding around. Ochre was being used in southern Africa in rock art some 100,000 years ago and there is no reason why it should not have happened over here – but would they have necessarily used ochre?

The consensus dating of cave art was based on supposed evolutionary precedents revolving around advancing from simple to sophisticated – and was largely inferred guesswork, a question of idealogy rather than reality. Art is thought to demonstrate a capacity for abstract thought – and this is thought to progress from simple to sophisticated also. However, art also involves the invention of the technology – in this case, the medium = paint. Mesolithic artwork often involved pecking out images on the face of rocks, rather than painting them. Some megaliths in the Mediterranean, and further afield, had painted images as well as engravings, and some art involved charcoal as a medium. Presumably some paints have faded, or decayed without hardly a trace, and we know nothing of such mediums. Ochres appear to be resilient – lasting for thousands of years in caves and rock shelters. The consensus doesn't necessarily address the impetus, the need to draw or paint an image, or the nature of the images. It only looks at what they think is the line of development – and this is why they became unstuck as clearly art can progress in one place, due to invidual brilliance, or the commonality of a suitable medium, and remain muted at another place, so much so that the passage of time is largely irrelevant.

The evolutionary approach is not always the best course to view the past. Whilst it is assumed Neanderthals might be dullards in comparison to modern humans, and Homo erectus were dullards in comparison with Neanderthals, the evidence doesn't always fit the theory as Homo erectus, it has been noted, was want to live in villages, an advanced stage of human development. They may even have had boats. Is art more advanced than building huts and living with a group of other people? Arty types might think so – and this might be the problem, tunnel vision. So, a good dosage of scepticism is the medicine recommended, and ochre being used like children with coloured crayons in a play school is not necessarily the be all or end all of anything in particular. Shells have been used for jewellery or self adornment for at least a hundred thousand years – personalised art as opposed to group art. I am intrigued by the dating of a charcoal drawing in the Chauvet Cave which has recently caused a flurry as the charcoal itself dates back, by C14, to at least 30,000 years ago – and possibly much earlier than this. The new dates took the anthropologists by surprise as the Chauvet artwork is especially well executed, providing a window on a lost world, a savannah environment complete with prides of lions and other exotic animals. In the evolutionary scheme this was dated late in the sequence, to the period between the end of the Ice Age and the onset of the Yonger Dryas event, as the animals are depicted in an extraordinarily lifelike manner. On reflection the consensus dates were absurd from the beginning, what were lions and other exotics doing in a post Late Glacial environment. No, a date prior to whatever happened around 40 to 30,000 years ago seems the more likely – but does that imply Neanderthals were responsible. Jury out. However, what the Chauvet art shows is that the climate in Europe during the last 100,000 years does not necessarily conform to the Milankovitch model as adopted by the uniformitarians. It depicts a period conforming to one of several warm episodes, but quite how this conforms to the Ice Age model is less certain. In the article above it is thought some hand stencils might represent Neanderthal attempts at art – but nothing definite is proposed. It is all open for the next person or persons to research and come out for or against.

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