Oldest Rock Art in North America Revealed
University of Colorado
Researchers found that petroglyphs discovered in western Nevada are at least 10,500 years old, making them the oldest rock art ever dated in North America.
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.
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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.
On the west side of Nevada's dried-up Winnemucca Lake, there are several limestone boulders with deep, ancient carvings; some resemble trees and leaves, whereas others are more abstract designs that look like ovals or diamonds in a chain.
The true age of this rock art had not been known, but a new analysis suggests these petroglyphs are the oldest North America, dating back to between 10,500 and 14,800 years ago.
Though Winnemucca Lake is now barren, at other times in the past it was so full of water the lake would have submerged the rocks where the petroglyphs were found and spilled its excess contents over Emerson Pass to the north. (See Photos of Amazing Cave Art)
To determine the age of the rock art, researchers had to figure out when the boulders were above the water line.
The overflowing lake left telltale crusts of carbonate on these rocks, according to study researcher Larry Benson of the University of Colorado Boulder. Radiocarbon tests revealed that the carbonate film underlying the petroglyphs dated back roughly 14,800 years ago, while a later layer of carbonate coating the rock art dated to about 11,000 years ago.
Those findings, along with an analysis of sediment core sampled nearby, suggest the petroglyph-decorated rocks were exposed first between 14,800 and 13,200 years ago and again between about 11,300 and 10,500 years ago.
"Prior to our study, archaeologists had suggested these petroglyphs were extremely old," Benson said in a statement. "Whether they turn out to be as old as 14,800 years ago or as recent as 10,500 years ago, they are still the oldest petroglyphs that have been dated in North America."
Researchers previously believed the oldest rock art in North America could be found at Long Lake, Ore., in carvings that were created at least 6,700 years ago, before being covered in ash from the Mount Mazama volcanic eruption.
The deeply carved lines and grooves in geometric motifs in the petroglyphs at Winnemucca Lake share similarities with their cousins in Oregon. As for what the petroglyphs represented to their Native American creators, researchers are still scratching their heads.
"We have no idea what they mean," Benson said. "But I think they are absolutely beautiful symbols. Some look like multiple connected sets of diamonds, and some look like trees, or veins in a leaf. There are few petroglyphs in the American Southwest that are as deeply carved as these, and few that have the same sense of size."
The findings will be detailed in the December 2013 issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.
This article originally appeared on LiveScience.com. More from LiveScience.com:
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