cave
April 12, 2016

French cave paintings are 10,000 years older than we thought, oldest in the world

The cave drawings in the Chauvet-Pont d’Arc, France may be taking back the crown for the oldest animal paintings on Earth, as an international team of scientists have found new evidence that they are 10,000 years older than previously believed.

Chauvet-Pont d’Arc is a cave located in the Ardèche département, a region that is found in south-central France. Discovered in 1994, it features human hand prints as well as drawings of 14 different animal species, ranging from cave bears to big cats. It was long believed to be the oldest known human-decorated cave in the world, with its artwork estimated to be from between 22,000-18,000 BCE.

However, in 2014, a cave on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia knocked Chauvet-Pont d’Arc off its pedestal, as researchers dated its animal paintings to roughly 35,000 years old. The Sulawesi cave also contained the earliest hand stencil, coming in at about 40,000 years old.

Dating to discover the oldest cave paintings

But now, as detailed in the paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers have collected and analyzed more than 350 dates obtained by radiocarbon, uranium-series, and chlorine-36 dating (techniques involving the decay of radioactive chemical elements) and thermoluminescence (which shows when certain types of minerals were last exposed to high heat, like cook fires or torch marks).

These dates—80 of which were previously unpublished—all come from 15 years of studying “objects” of Chauvet-Pont d’Arc generally related to rock art and human activity in the cave. For example, scientists dated the materials used to draw the animals, like charcoal collected from fires. They also examined things like charcoal torch marks and the bones of a variety of animals found inside the cave.

From their analysis, the researchers discovered a totally new timeline for the cave. According to their results, humans left their first marks inside the Chauvet-Pont d’Arc Cave from 37,000 to 33,500 years ago, and then occupied the cave again from 31,000 to 28,000 years ago. Analysis of the animal bones, meanwhile, show that cave bears also liked to prowl the cave up until about 33,000 years ago—although the researchers don’t think humans and bears tried to live in the cave at the same time. (It definitely was not Paddington.)

However, dangerous rock slides drove both humans and bears away from the cave, with the mouth finally being sealed by rock around 23,500 to 21,500 years ago.

Either way, though, the new timeline of the animal cave paintings puts them in the same range as the Sulawesi ones in Indonesia, meaning Chauvet-Pont d’Arc may just contain the oldest known animal drawings on Earth.

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Image Credit: Jean-Michel Geneste, Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication