Caravaggio of the Caves

By Josie Glausiusz|Friday, February 01, 2002

The prehistoric cave paintings of Chauvet in southeastern France show the work of deft hands: Hundreds of animals appear in lifelike poses—standing, stalking, running, or roaming in packs—on surfaces specially scraped to make the sketches stand out. Many archaeologists assumed that such sophistication required thousands of years of cultural development and artistic experimentation. Yet a new, improved dating analysis suggests that the Chauvet paintings were made between 32,000 and 29,000 years ago, placing them among the most ancient artworks known.

Well-rendered animals in France's Chauvet cave show an early period of artistic development.
Photograph courtesy of Helene Valladas/Jean Clottes

Archaeologist Helene Valladas of the National Center for Scientific Research in Gif-sur-Yvette used a precision form of carbon dating to analyze the animal drawings and various charcoal remains in the cave. Her results confirm that the Chauvet cave paintings are 10,000 to 15,000 years older than those at Lascaux, even though the art in the two locations is similarly fine. The finding implies that prehistoric art did not evolve steadily from crude beginnings to complex representations, as was previously thought, but "in spurts, with lots of apogees and lots of declines," says archaeologist Jean Clottes, who is in charge of the research at Chauvet. If so, there may be earlier cycles of artistic development as yet unknown. "I would be very surprised if much older art was not discovered in the next few years, not only in Europe but mostly in Asia, Australia, and Africa. The big problem is one of preservation and dating," says Clottes.

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