Dating the origins and development of Palaeolithic cave painting in Europe by U-series disequilibrium

Lead Research Organisation: University of Southampton
Department Name: Faculty of Humanities

Abstract

European Cave art is one of the most striking examples of Ice Age archaeology and one of the most important sources of information about the belief systems, symbolic behaviour and aesthetic abilities of the earliest known artists. While its specific meaning will probably always remain hotly debated, it is undoubtedly one of the most intimate windows to the cultural past. However, uncertainties about its exact age seriously hamper our understanding of nearly all aspects of cave art, particularly its relationship to the archaeology that is found below ground and which constitutes the majority of the record of Ice Age human behaviour and behavioural change. We will considerably redress this situation by producing one of the largest corpuses of radiometric dates for the core regions of Palaeolithic cave paintings and engravings; Spain, France and Italy. The results will allow us to determine whether Neanderthals created some of the earliest art, or whether it was a behaviour restricted to our own species; and how it evolved thematically and stylistically over time from place to place. Providing reliable dates for particular artistic themes and styles will allow us to relate the changing artistic traditions to the social and behavioural changes that are recorded in the below ground archaeological record.

At present it is still not certain when cave art first appeared in Europe. Radiocarbon has been used to provide dates for the organic pigments used in cave paintings, but many of the results remain controversial. Organic pigments may become contaminated by the much older limestone of the walls of caves, or the charcoal used to make a black pigment could have been old at the time the art was made. Furthermore, radiocarbon can only date carbon based pigments, but the majority of early cave art is either engravings with no pigments, or use mineral pigments such as red ochre that is unsuitable for the radiocarbon method. Many engravings and paintings were created directly on, or became overlain by, calcium carbonate layers formed by the same process as stalagmites and stalactites. We can establish when these layers formed by uranium-series dating, a technique that measures the ratio of uranium to its radioactive decay product thorium. By so doing a minimum or maximum age can be calculated for the art, and by measuring enough examples a chronology for the emergence of the art and its subsequent development and spread of different styles can be constructed.

In a pilot project we successfully dated 50 carbonate samples from 11 caves in northern Spain, showing that art in this region appeared 20,000 years earlier that was previously thought, and that it appeared in the period in which the last Neanderthals were disappearing and the first modern humans (Homo sapiens) were arriving. These results raised the possibility that Neanderthals created some of the earliest examples of cave art. If true, this would fit with the emerging picture of symbolic use of pigments by Neanderthals, and would raise our understanding of their behavioural and cognitive capacities significantly. To unravel this requires a far more ambitious project, proposed here, since the distribution of the earliest art may help us understand if it arrived in Europe with the first modern humans; whether it was developed by them only later; or indeed whether some of it can be attributed to the Neanderthals. To address these questions we will date cave art associated with datable carbonate layers in 49 caves in the regions where cave art is most abundant; Spain, France and Italy, and produce the largest database of reliably dated cave art so far produced.

Planned Impact

The enhancement through this project of our understanding of several UNESCO World Heritage cave art sites and other cave art sites in Spain, France and Italy, will benefit the general public through a visitor experience enriched by our research. In addition to the increase in available data the project will provide an excellent example of how cutting edge scientific techniques interface with arts and humanities approaches which are more traditionally associated with the presentation of cave art to the public at the interpretation centres associated with our impact strategy.


Museums (specifically Creswell Crags Museum and Education Centre, and the National Museum of Altamira) will benefit through these enhanced displays and interpretations (see Pathways to Impact) and through the enhanced visitor numbers our research and associated publicity will attract. At Creswell Crags a key strategic aim of the Creswell Heritage Trust is the regeneration of an economically-deprived area through the creation of a major visitor attraction. Adding value to the existing Creswell resource, through demonstrating its shared international artistic heritage, and by using it to disseminate cutting edge science, will contribute to this aim.


Regional communities in the hinterland of such cave art visitor attractions will benefit economically through increased visitor numbers, as a direct result of the publicity and events associated with our research.


Other educational institutions will benefit from the creation of an 'active archive' in the form of learning resources such as a pop-up exhibition, which can be provided to schools, colleges, museums, universities and other educational institutions on an ongoing basis.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description We are undertaking the largest programme of dating of Ice-Age cave paintings ever attempted.

Our ability to date art using U-Th dating of calcite deposits that have formed on top of it (similar to stalagmites), has been made possible by our method development that has led to a massive reduction in the sample size required. We can now date a few mg of calcite (vs. a few hundred previously required), which allows the application of the method to many more previously undatable paintings.

Our results have shown that cave paintings in three caves in Spain are of far greater antiquity than previously believed, and date back to at least 64,000 years ago. This is at least 20,000 years before the arrival of modern humans (Homo sapiens) to Europe and therefore the paintings must have been made by Neanderthals. This is a highly significant result as it has generally been thought that the ability to use symbols (symbolic behaviour) originated with modern humans in Africa. The origin of symbolic behaviour is a key issue in Archaeology and Anthrpology as it has been linked to the rise of culture, and possibly the development of language. We now find that both modern humans and Neanderthals possessed the capacity for symbolic behaviour, significantly narrowing the differences between them, and a forcing a reappraisal of whether they are different species. Since the capacity for symbolic behaviour would have required evolutionary changes in the brain (which both modern humans and Neanderthals possessed) it raises the question of whether the earliest evidence for symbolic behaviour will be found in their last common ancestor - Homo heidlebergensis perhaps 500,000 years ago.
Exploitation Route Our results have already informed museum displays and guided tours at painted cave sites. They may also inform heritage and conservation decisions, as well as having profound implications for Archaeologists studying the evolution of human symbolic behavior and the culture of Neanderthals.
Sectors Creative Economy,Environment,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL https://theconversation.com/how-we-discovered-that-neanderthals-could-make-art-92127
 
Description Our results have been used to inform visitor displays and tours of the World Heritage Sites of Altamira and El Castillo Caves. Our results have prompted dicsussion across a broad range of international media. Hoffmann et al. 2018 has an Altmetrics score of 2926 maiking it the 10th most discussed paper published in Science, and the 144th most discussed from all sources.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Creative Economy,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Economic

 
Description Gerda Henkel Research Grant
Amount € 119,974 (EUR)
Organisation Gerda Henkel Foundation 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country Germany
Start 01/2017 
End 01/2018
 
Description NERC standard grant
Amount £380,000 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/K015184/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2014 
End 04/2017
 
Description The British Academy/Leverhulme - Small Research Grant
Amount £9,443 (GBP)
Organisation The British Academy 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2014 
End 10/2015
 
Description The National Geographic Expidition Fund
Amount $30,000 (USD)
Organisation National Geographic 
Sector Private
Country United States
Start 02/2017 
End 02/2018
 
Description A short you tube film outlining the implications of our results 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact we made a short film about our research. It has been viewed c.75,000 times
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0H_wFNfrMmU
 
Description BBC2: Antony Gormley: How Art Began 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I appeared as a featured expert on BBC2's Antony Gormley: How Art Began talking about the implications of my research
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0c1ngds
 
Description Dating Palaeolithic Art, Making Palaeolithic Art 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Interactive stand at Human Worlds Festival, 19th November 2016.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL https://www.humanworldsfestival.com/events/become_a_cave_artist/
 
Description Dating Palaeolithic Art, Making Palaeolithic Art 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact An interactive stand at Science and Engineering Day, 12th March 2016
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.southampton.ac.uk/per/university/festival/science-and-engineering-day.
 
Description Dating Palaeolithic Art, Making Palaeolithic Art 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Interactive stand at the Festival of British Archaeology Activities Day, 23rd July 2016.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.southampton.ac.uk/archaeology/news/2016/10/12-festival-british-archaeology.page
 
Description Expert Advisor, BBC's The Human Universe with Brian Cox 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Results of my research were featured on BBC documentary The Human Universe which reaches an audience of several million.

Communication of Science to public; raises awareness and profile of heritage sites; school requested a lecture for GCSE and A-level science, history and language students
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
URL http://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/proginfo/2014/40/human-universe-1
 
Description Press release and interviews with international media on our research 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact to accompany the publication of Hoffmann et al. 2018 we issues a series of press releases. These generated worldwide media interest (more than 230 news articles listed in Altmetrics), and interviews with many tens of international media organzations (e.g. BBC, CNN, New Scientist, Nature, NPR, CBC, ABC)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=neanderthal+painting&safe=strict&source=lnms&tbm=nws&sa=X&ved=0ahU...
 
Description Public Lecture 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Lecture to continuing Education programme, 'The Science of the Palaeolithic'

none easily evidenced
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
 
Description Public Lecture Southampton Archaeological Society 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Talk to Southampton Archaeology Society, attended by c. 40 people. Lively discussion which indicated changes in the views of many of the audience.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Public lecture 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Public Lecture presented at Cafe Scientifique
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://www.cafescientifique.org/
 
Description Short article about our research aimed at 14-18 year olds 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact We wrote a short summary of our research and its implications for The Conversation. It has received more than 16,000 reads, and is the top story on the website. Discussion was had with the audience by responding to the comments.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://theconversation.com/how-we-discovered-that-neanderthals-could-make-art-92127
 
Description workshop: digital recording of cave and rock art 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact We brought together digital imaging and rock/cave art specialists to discuss future directions in rock and cave art recording and dissemination to scholars and the public.

The museum of Altamira has agreed to used several of the technologies demonstrated in its public displays
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015