New Evidence Suggests These Ancient Cave Paintings Are Actually Much Older Than We Thought

This cave art is in a style elsewhere thought to have occurred 10,000 years after it was made. Jean-Michel Geneste, Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication.

The Chauvet-Pont d'Arc cave paintings are stunning works of art. Based on their style they were estimated to have been made around 20,000 years ago, but radiocarbon dating of bits of debris the artists left behind reveal the works as far more ancient, and increases our knowledge of the Ice Age inhabitants of southern Europe.

UNESCO has classified Chauvet-Pont d'Arc as a World Heritage site for the gorgeous paintings and engravings seen there. The art appears to be in the style of the Solutrean era, which at other sites has been dated to between 22,000-18,000 years ago. However, attempts to date the carbon in the black drawings produced an estimate of 32,000-30,000 years ago, throwing into question wider theories of the timing of artistic development in the late Paleolithic.


The art of Chauvet-Pont d’Arc Cave has helped us learn about the species, such as the woolly rhinoceros, that inhabited Europe at the time. Jean-Michel Geneste, Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication

In Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences a team led by Dr. Anita Quiles of the Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale, Cairo, revealed their efforts to date the cave paintings more accurately. Using 259 radiocarbon dates, 80 of them new, collected from pieces of charcoal and animal remains found in the cave, the paper reveals two periods of human occupation.

The first occurred between 37,000 and 33,500 years ago. Until 33,000 years ago the shelter of stone was also sporadically occupied by cave bears, who left behind at least 200 skeletons. Much as their proximity might delight Jean M Auel fans, the bears probably didn't get on too well with humans, but over thousands of years, each species could have had a good go. After a period where the cave seems to have been empty of bears or humans our ancestors reclaimed the space for a period between 31,000 and 28,000 years ago.

Rockfalls played a big part in the habitability of Chauvet-Pont d'Arc. One occurred an estimated 34,500 years ago. Allowing for some uncertainty in this value, it seems likely this ended the first human, and the ursine, occupation of the cave. A second rockfall partially closed the entrance, and may have encouraged humans to move out once again.

The conclusions did not rely on radiocarbon dating alone. Carbonate concretions sometimes become superimposed on drawings, allowing the use of uranium-series dating to provide a minimum age for the charcoal. Thermoluminescence dating was used to measure when locations in the cave housed fires. The rockfalls' estimated timing is based on the presence of chlorine-36 in surfaces exposed in the fall. Chlorine-36 is produced in the atmosphere through the interaction of argon and cosmic rays, and can be found only in the top layer of rock or soil. Since it is radioactive, the concentration can be used to date how long material has been exposed to the air.

All this means that “Currently, the Chauvet-Pont d’Arc Cave is the European Paleolithic rock art site with by far the largest number of independent dates obtained by different methods with the aim of comparing them to identify the occupation phases in the cave,” the authors write, setting a standard for other caves.

A map of the cave and sites at which different sorts of samples were taken. Quiles et al/PNAS

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