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Carbon Dating of Prehistoric Art

Mass Spectrometry has dated prehistoric cave paintings in south central France at about 30,000 years old, a discovery which has the art world rethinking its origins.

The charcoal etchings on a cave wall depict horses, rhinoceros and a deer. The drawings were discovered in 1994 at a narrow entrance to several underground chambers in a rocky escarpment in the Ardeche region in France.

Scientists of the Laboratory for Climate and Environment Studies at the France's CEA-CNRS research centre carried out carbon dating of tiny fragments of the charcoal. They used accelerator mass spectrometry, which separates and counts radioactive carbon isotopes residual in the charcoal and found the drawings to be between 29 700 and 32 400 years old.

This finding makes the drawings significantly older than those of Lascaux caves in the Pyrenees in Southwest France which are dated at around 17 000 years old. The drawings in the Chauvet caves show that early European dwellers were 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 as a result of these findings.

Yet the oldest known objects considered to be art are far older than the French cave paintings and precede the existence of anatomically modern humans, the Homo sapiens. A tiny stone carving found in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in 1981 is estimated at 233 000 years old. And pigments and paint-grinding equipment found in a cave in 2000 at Twin Rivers, near Lusaka in Zambia, are believed to be between 350 000 and 400 000 years old.

The cave painting report appears in the October 4 issue of


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