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19 February 2006
Stone Age artists are getting older

Recent discoveries in Italy and Germany have pushed back the age of Stone Age art in Europe by several millennia. Cave painting from near Verona and carved animal figures from the Danube valley suggest that our ancestors were creating art across a broad area well before 30,000 years ago.
     At the Fumane cave, on the southern edge of the Alps, an occupation with tools of Aurignacian type, made by the first modern humans in Europe, has been radiocarbon dated to between 34,000 and 32,000 years ago. In the Aurignacian deposits painted rock fragments were found which had spalled off the walls of the cave because of the freezing of water in cracks: erosion of the paint showed that the art, in red and yellow ochre lines, had been on the walls for some time before it fell and was buried.
     Among the motifs is an 'anthropomorph', a humanoid figure, according to Dr Alberto Broglio. It is full face, with two horns which "may be a mask" on its head; the arms are by its side and the legs are spread. "The right hand is holding something which is hanging downwards, probably a ritual object," Dr Broglio says. Another figure shows a four-legged animal seen from the side and "resembles the profile of a small statuette from Vogelherd".
     Radiocarbon dates from the Vogelherd caves, near Ulm on the upper Danube, also give dates between 36,000 and 30,000 years ago, Dr Nicholas Conard points out in a new book discussing the importance of the Fumane paintings. He agrees that "the red paintings from Fumane are of extreme importance" for a number of reasons, among them the contrast between the rather simple form of the Fumane figures and the more sophisticated detail of the Vogelherd carvings, which include a famous horse carved from mammoth ivory and less than two inches long, found in 1931.
     Vogelherd has also produced an ivory statuette of a feline of about twice that size, and the nearby cave of Hohelstein- Stadel yielded a 'lion-man' about a foot high, standing upright but with a lion’s head. Another south German site, Geissenklösterle, has more recently produced yet other ivory figures and also two bone flutes: thermoluminescence (TL) dates for the layer that contained these go back to 37,000 years ago, although the radiocarbon dates are later.
The Aurignacian layers here also yielded rock fragments with yellow, red and black pigment on them.
     Among the ivory figures is a frontal figure with spread legs, in low relief on a bone plaque; on the other side are a series of shallow pits in lines which may be some form of structured notation, similar to an example from the Dordogne, which has been interpreted as a lunar calendar. Yet another cave, only a short distance away at Hohle Fels, has now yielded ivory animal figurines with radiocarbon dates between 33,000 and 30,000 years ago.
     Dr Conard points out that there are at least three distinct Aurignacian artistic traditions dating to before 30,000 years ago: the Danube valley ivory figures, engravings from the Dordogne caves in western France, and the Fumane paintings in northern Italy. The excavator of Geissenklösterle, Dr Joachim Hahn, argues that the animal and human-animal figures show Aurignacian people’s respect for dangerous animals, but Dr Conard is more persuaded by the views of Dr David Lewis-Williams, the South African rock art specialist, that such art reflects a shamanistic religious system. He notes that the ivory figure of a water fowl from Hohle Fels does not represent a powerful or dangerous creature, while the lion-men confirm that a noted feature of shamanism, "the transformation between man and animal, and particularly between man and felids, was part of the Aurignacian system of beliefs".
     Conard concedes that the shamanism explanation can be neither proved nor refuted, but he believes that the influx of recent research will "lead us to a better and regionally specific understanding of what happened during the period of the last Neanderthals and first modern humans in Europe".

Source: Times Online (13 February 2006)

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