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22 October 2001
Prehistoric cave paintings much older than previously thought

New radiocarbon dating techniques may force art historians to think again about how art evolved. Art experts believe early art started out with very rudimentary figures and gradually progressed to more sophisticated techniques and images. But French scientists who have dated the oldest known animal paintings in Chauvet cave (south-central France) to 30,000 years ago are turning the theory on its head because they found the images were as skilled and complex as other cave paintings done a mere 17,000 years ago.
      The remarkable Chauvet drawings were discovered in 1994 when potholers stumbled upon a narrow entrance to several underground chambers in a rocky escarpment near the village of Vallon Pont d'Arc, northwest of Avignon. Cathedral-size chambers and galleries in the cave are filled with more than 400 black and ochre paintings of 14 different kinds of animals. Exquisitely drawn bison, horses, rhinoceros, reindeer, bears, lions and an owl roam the walls. Only scientists are permitted to view and study the precious drawings to prevent damage to them.
      Cave drawings are obviously very old, but dating them has always been difficult because of the small quantities of carbon found on the walls or in the caves. 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; the technique dates the carbon used to make the drawings, as well as smudges left by torch bearers.
      It found the Chauvet drawings to be between 29,700 and 32,400 years old. This is at least 10,000 years older than comparable cave art found in the celebrated caves of Lascaux and Niaux, near the Pyrenees, which date to the Magdalenian period 12,000-17,000 years ago. 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.

Sources: BBC News, Reuters/Yahoo (3 October 2001), Scientific American (4 October 2001

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