Nov. 16, 2011 --
Reaching back tens of thousands of years into human history, cave paintings, petroglyphs and other forms of ancient art, such as the one seen above, show the roots of our innate desire for self-expression. But exactly who were the Stone-Age artists whose hands collectively painted, molded or carved what remains of their efforts today? In this slideshow, explore what we know about the artists behind some of the longest-lasting examples of human creativity ever found.
The Cro-Magnon painters who left behind the images still present in Lascaux cave in France may have had the souls of artists, but they were also athletes compared to modern humans. These ancient Homo sapiens were stronger than their modern descendants. They also had bigger brains. Our brains are actually smaller by about 10 percent, or the size of a tennis ball. Although a larger brain may seem the hallmark of a more intelligent animal, researchers believe that a smaller brain is part of an evolutionary process to make our minds leaner and more efficient.
Photo courtesy of the French Ministry of Cult
Stone Age cave painters were realists, painting what they saw, rather than what they imagined, according to a study published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Paintings adorning cave walls in France frequently depict horses. In some cases, the animals have leopard spots on their bodies. Until this study, however, scientists only had evidence to support the existence of one-colored horses. Using bones and teeth from more than 30 horses dating back as many as 35,000 years, researchers determined that these animals "shared a gene associated with a type of leopard spotting seen in modern horses," according to an AFP report on the findings.
Cave paintings may not have the same production values as the average Hollywood blockbuster, but you could say that these artworks were the original silent pictures. Paintings were often laid out in scenes to tell a story. Researchers believe that flute music would have accompanied an art display -- music that we can no longer hear and have no real conception of how it sounded. Flutes made of bone were found by a University of Paris researcher in a cave filled with Stone Age paintings on its walls. The most acoustically resonant part of the cave also happened to be the spot with the highest concentration of artwork, according to a report in Science Daily.
NEWS: PREHISTORIC HUMANS TOOK IN ART SHOWS
Leslie Van Gelder
Women and girls were key contributors to Stone Age art. Flutings -- finger etchings constructed together to form a recognizable shape, such as an animal, or an abstract pattern -- found on the walls of Rouffignac Cave in the Dordogne, France, reveal that women and girls were the likely artists behind many of the works that are still there today. Researcher Leslie Van Gelder was able to make this determination based on the locations of the flutings in the cave (etchings made closer to the ground were more likely done by children) and the ratio of the size of the index finger and the ring finger. In men, the ring finger tends to be longer, but in women, the digits are often the same size or the index finger is longer.
Before these cave painters could move into their respective studios, some of them had to evict existing tenants. In two French caves containing paintings dating back around 32,000 years ago, ancient humans displaced cave bears in order to claim the sites for themselves, according to a study published in April in the Journal of Archaeological Science. Cave bears even appear on some of the art on the walls. Researchers came to this determination after they "performed radiocarbon dating, mitochondrial DNA analysis and isotope investigations of cave bear remains from Chauvet-Pont d'Arc and Deux-Ouvertures caves located along the Ardeche River in France," according to Discovery News' Jennifer Viegas. Whether humans are responsible for the broader cave-bear extinction in the region is still unclear. Environmental and/or climatic changes may have also played a role.
Why ancient cave painters took to their craft, particularly when the practice was adopted over thousands of years and across different populations, is still a mystery. Many archaeologists initially believe that the paintings were expressions of creativity or at least simply decorative. However, anthropologists examining the paintings contend that Stone Age art may have been the product of religious beliefs, as explained in a 2010 study published in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology. The paintings, then, might be what remains of early shaman-based religions. The images produced could be the result of visions by these holy individuals during religious rituals.
Some of the world’s oldest prehistoric artwork, located in the Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cave in southeastern France, is actually 10,000 years older than previously thought, researchers said Tuesday.
The red and black cave drawings contained in the cave are more than 30,000 years old, according to a radiocarbon dating study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a peer-reviewed US journal.
The cave is located in Vallon-Pont d’Arc, Ardeche, and was classified as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage site in 2014, 20 years after it was first discovered.
“What is new in our study is that we have established the chronology of the cave for the first time in calendar years,” said Anita Quiles, a scientist at the French Institute for Oriental Archaeology in Cairo.
Because of stylistic similarities, researchers had long believed that the Chauvet art was from about the same period as that contained in Lascaux, a prehistoric site in southwestern France that dates to 20,000 years ago.
“But now we know there is 10,000 years — or even 15,000 years — of a split in the dates of these two sites,” she told AFP.
“We can now say with certainty that there has been no human activity in the Chauvet cave for about 30,000 years.”
The study analyzed charcoal samples on the cave floor and walls, and found that there were two phases of human occupation.
The first lasted from 37,000 to 33,500 years ago, said the study, appearing to come to an end around the time of a rockfall in one section of the cave.
The second wave of human occupation lasted from 31,000 to 28,000 years ago.
“The end of the second human occupation correlates with a second rockfall 29,400 years ago that partially closed off the cave entrance,” said the study.
Researchers also analyzed animal bones found in the cave and identified them as belonging to cave bears.
No human remains have been found inside, and experts believe this is because people did not live in the cave but rather visited from time to time.
The artwork contains 447 drawings of animals, including deer, horses and rhinoceroses.
The study took 18 years, and involved creating a statistical model which included more than 250 dates derived from samples of charcoal and bone, according to Jean-Michel Geneste, scientific director for the Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cave.
“This is pretty revolutionary for us. It is a new tool which could be used elsewhere to study other ancient time periods,” he said.
“We can now confirm that 36,000 years ago, during the Upper Paleolithic period when modern tools, art and jewelry-making techniques appeared, we already had art that was quite evolved, accomplished, and already the object of a very long memory and a long cultural tradition in western Europe,” he said.
“Before, this was a hypothesis. Now that we have dozens of dates, we have certainty.”