Tag Archives: cave painting

Ancient cave paintings may be sign of prehistoric astronomy

Cave drawings dating back to 15,000 years ago may represent more than just animals — they may be an indication that these prehistoric people were keeping track of the stars.

A depiction of aurochs, horses, and deer. Image via Wikipedia.

When 18-year-old Marcel Ravidat discovered the cave of Lascaux, in southern France, he was thrilled. He asked a couple of his friends to join in exploring the cave, and they discovered a stunning set of drawings on the cave’s walls. It didn’t take long for researchers to find out about the cave and realize how remarkable it is, and a myriad of studies have been carried out since. Overall, there are more than 600 paintings on the walls and roof, most of which depict large animals — typical local and contemporary fauna. The drawings are the combined effort of many generations and have been dated to about 17,000 years ago.

But the cave paintings may hold even more surprises. According to a new study, they may be more than just visual representations — akin to a horoscope, they may be a stylized representation of star alignments.

It’s not the first time someone has tried to explain the significance of these cave drawings. Aside from the more common depictions of horses and aurochs, a few drawings are quite puzzling. For instance, one shows a human figure angled next to an auroch, the beast’s intestines dangling from its belly. Next to it, a duck-like figure stands next to a rhinoceros (perhaps a Siberian unicorn).

Image credits: Alistair Coombs.

Of course, a superficial (but quite possibly true) explanation can be ascribed to these drawings: they could represent stylized scenes that the artists may have witnessed, or perhaps deities or spirits — as caves were possibly considered as supernatural places. They may have been prayers, or a form of an ancient wish list, invoking the favor of forgotten gods. Still, not all researchers are convinced this is the case.

“Early cave art shows that people had advanced knowledge of the night sky within the last Ice Age,” says one of the study’s authors, chemical engineer Martin Sweatman from the University of Edinburgh.

“Intellectually, they were hardly any different to us today,” says Sweatman.

Sweatman and his colleague from the University of Kent, Alistair Coombs, say we should give these ancient people a bit more credit. The two believe that these animal symbols could represent star constellations in the night sky (much like the signs of a zodiac) and were used to represent dates and mark astronomic events such as comet strikes. Even more, they argue, this shows that as far back as 40,000 years ago, humans kept track of time using knowledge of how the position of the stars slowly changes over thousands of years. Based on their analysis, the date could be estimated within 250 years — hardly an accurate technique, but it still shows that the astronomical capabilities of the cave’s inhabitants were far greater than initially thought.

Furthermore, researchers explain, this would mean that ancient people understood (or at least were able to observe) an effect caused by the gradual shift of Earth’s rotational axis, something called precession of the equinoxes. Previously, it was thought that the Ancient Greeks first discovered this phenomenon.

Essentially, this process is a slow, and continuous change in the orientation of the Earth’s rotation axis, in a cycle of approximately 25,772 years. This movement means that if you look at the night sky a few hundred years from now, stars will appear shifted.

Precession of Earth’s axis around the north ecliptical pole. Image credits: Tauʻolunga.

This might not be the only ancient site that employed this practice. Göbekli Tepe, an archaeological site in the Southeastern Anatolia Region of Turkey, and Çatalhöyük, a very large Neolithic proto-city settlement also in Turkey, “display the same method for recording dates based on the precession of the equinoxes, with animal symbols representing an ancient zodiac,” researchers write in the study.

“In particular, the Shaft Scene at Lascaux is found to have a similar meaning to the Vulture Stone at Gobekli Tepe,” researchers write. “Both can be viewed as memorials of catastrophic encounters with the Taurid meteor stream, consistent with Clube and Napier’s theory of coherent catastrophism.”

The theory of coherent catastrophism is still controversial, suggesting that the Earth has been regularly subjected to catastrophes from passing comets. But Sweatman and Coombs say that if their interpretation is correct, everything fits — the date of a comet impact recorded in the drawings at Lascaux fits with what separate data suggests.

“The date of the likely comet strike recorded at Lascaux is 15,150 BC to within 200 years, corresponding closely to the onset of a climate event recorded in a Greenland ice core,” they continue.

A survey of radiocarbon dates of other Palaeolithic caves is consistent with this zodiacal interpretation, the authors say, giving their interpretation a strong statistical relevance. Finally, the 40,000-year-old carving of an upright lion found in the Hohlenstein cave is also consistent with their interpretation, indicating that this practice may have been not only ancient, but very widespread. The fact that all these different geographical areas employed a similar approach can “revolutionise how prehistoric populations” are seen, Sweatman concludes.

Of course, this is a bit speculative at this point. No doubt, researchers will continue to debate the meaning of the cave paintings for years to come, but it’s an interesting interpretation, one that shifts away from the common shamanistic idea. At the very least, it’s an interesting hypothesis worth exploring in future research.

This study was published in the Athens Journal of History.

Scientists find oldest figurative cave painting

A figurative painting, by definition, is a representation — an image of something else. Now, scientists have evidence that the first figurative painting was painted at least 35,000 years ago.

Ancient figurative cave art, 40,000 years old. Image credits: Pindi Setiawan.

The first artists

Since the 1990s, thousands of rock art images have been documented in the karst caves of the East Kalimantan, a province in the Indonesian portion of Borneo. This beautiful region is remote and difficult-to-access, and contains numerous caves, some of which contain remarkable drawings made by early humans. Fifty-two rock art sites have been recorded, generally in high-level caves that contain little other evidence of human habitation. Few sites in the region have been excavated and studies remain logistically difficult.

Now, researchers have used uranium dating to show that the paintings are much older than previously thought, and probably represent the oldest figurative paintings ever found.

The prehistoric paintings and drawings include thousands of depictions of human hands (“stencils”), animals, abstract signs and symbols, and related motifs. Previously, researchers have looked at the different styles of drawing, discovering three distinct phase:

  • The oldest style phase contains two different elements: large, reddish-orange-colored paintings of animals — mainly the Bornean banteng (Bos javanicus lowi), a type of wild cattle that still lives on the island — and hand stencils produced using a similar pigment;
  • The second phase is dominated by purple hand stencils, many of which are partly in-filled with painted lines, dashes, dots and small abstract signs that possibly represent tattoos or other marks of social identification;
  • The third phase features anthropomorphic figures, boats and geometric designs that are usually executed in black pigments.

Mulberry-colored hand stencils. Image credits: Kinez Riza.

Now, Maxime Aubert and colleagues from Griffith University studied a large, red-orange colored painting of an indeterminate animal from the first period. They used uranium dating to assess the age of the painting using a calcium carbonate sample.

[panel style=”panel-info” title=”Uranium Dating” footer=””]This is a radiometric dating technique to determine the age of calcium carbonate materials. It works by measuring the ratio between the radioactive isotope thorium-230 and its radioactive parent, uranium-234 within a sample. In the particular case of cave paintings, the difference between the type of dating can be extremely important.

“Radiocarbon dating is usually used to date the pigment layer itself, “Aubert explained. “It’s been applied in France for example to date the charcoal drawings in Chauvet cave. The problem it that it only provides a maximum age. The date is for the charcoal, not the marking event. In other words, if I walked into the cave today and pick up a 40,000 years old charcoal from the cave floor and draw an animal with it, it will date to 40,000 years.”

“The oldest cave art image we dated is a large painting of an unidentified animal, probably a species of wild cattle still found in the jungles of Borneo – this has a minimum age of around 40,000 years and is now the earliest known figurative artwork,” he added.


The stencil works were shown to be similar in age, suggesting that a Palaeolithic rock art tradition first appeared on Borneo between about 52,000 and 40,000 years ago.

The analysis also revealed that some 20,000 years ago, a major stylistic change happened: a new style emerged, featuring (rare) portrayals of humans. This coincided with the most extreme period of the ice age, though it’s not clear if the two events are connected.

The study also showcases another interesting parallel: previously, early cave paintings were predominantly found in Europe (particularly in today’s Spain), and they show quite a bit of resemblance to the ones found in Borneo. This suggests that a similar style evolved in at least two different populations, in very different parts of the world.

Limestone karst of East Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo. Image credits: Pindi Setiawan.

“It now seems that two early cave art provinces arose at a similar time in remote corners of Palaeolithic Eurasia: one in Europe, and one in Indonesia at the opposite end of this ice age world,” said Associate Professor Adam Brumm, a Griffith archaeologist also involved in the study.

“What’s interesting is that it coincides with the arrival of modern humans in Europe but we know that modern humans arrived in Southeast Asia between 70,000 and 60,000 years ago,” Aubert adds.

However, while we now know that humans started making figurative art at almost the same time in two different parts of the world (western Europe and Borneo), we don’t really know who these artists were.

“Who the ice age artists of Borneo were and what happened to them is a mystery,” said team co-leader Dr. Pindi Setiawan, an Indonesian archaeologist and lecturer at ITB. Setiawan has studied the art since its discovery, and, along with ARKENAS rock art expert Adhi Agus Oktaviana, leads expeditions to the Kalimantan caves. “The new findings illustrate that the story of how cave art emerged is complex,” Oktaviana said.

But Aubert says that might soon change. While no archaeological digs have been carried out quite yet, digs are indeed planned for next year. Which means that we might soon find out who these peoples were, or at least what they lived like.

“We are going back next year and we will start archaeological excavations in order to find information about these unknowns artists. We also want to date more rock art in order to refine the minimum and maximum ages for each styles and also find out how long they lasted,” Aubert concluded.

The study has been published in Nature.

10,000-Year-Old Cave Paintings in Brazil Discovered by Accident

taboco 1

Credit: Alexine Keuroghlian/WCS

In quite an interesting discovery, Wildlife Conservation Society biologists have discovered cave paintings made by hunter-gatherers between 10,000 to 4,000 years ago while studying wild animals in the Taboco region.

An unexpected find

To add more mystery to the situation, the discovery was made in 2009, but it has been kept a secret until now – probably because they wanted to make sure there was proper security to protect the cave paintings before releasing the news publicly. Back then, Dr Alexine Keuroghlian of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Brazil Program and her colleagues were conducting surveys of white-lipped peccaries, medium-sized mammals of the family Tayassuidae, or New World pigs. Peccaries are very vulnerable to human activities, especially deforesting and hunting, and their numbers are dwindling all across South America.

taboco 4

While following radio signals from tracking devices on the peccaries, the team encountered some interesting sandstone formations, including caves containing drawings of animals and geometric figures.

Dr Rodrigo Luis Simas de Aguiar, an archaeologist with the Federal University of Grande Dourados, determined that the drawings were made by hunter gatherers in the area 4.000-10.000 years ago who either occupied the caves, or simply used them for artistic or religious pursuits. The findings have been described in a paper, but it’s in Portuguese, and no English translation is available at the moment.

The drawings

taboco 3

The paintings depict a very large assemblage of animals, including armadillos, deer, large cats, birds, and reptiles, as well as human-like figures and geometric symbols. The next step is to conduct cave floor excavations and date the drawings geologically.

“These discoveries of cave drawings emphasize the importance of protecting the Cerrado and Pantanal ecosystems, both for their cultural and natural heritage,” Julie Kunen, director of WCS’s Latin America and the Caribbean program, said in a statement. “We hope to partner with local landowners to protect these cave sites, as well as the forests that surround them, so that the cultural heritage and wildlife depicted in the drawings are preserved for future generations.”

Archaeologists still haven’t figured out what exactly what civilization (if any) made the drawings, and they’ve reported a strange mix of styles – the entire assemblage is way more complex than expected, showcasing influences from various areas of Brazil, including something rather similar to the ancient art from the central Brazilian plateau and the more recent, artistic north-eastern styles. Some are created in the so-called Planalto tradition while others, surprisingly, are more similar to the Nordeste or Agreste style drawings.

taboco 2

Credit: Alexine Keuroghlian/WCS

Scientific Reference.

mexico cave painting

5,000 amazing cave paintings discovered in Mexico [PHOTOS]

mexico cave painting

Archaeologists in Mexico have discovered a marvelous collection of pre-Hispanic paintings in 11 sites different sites in the caves and mountain gaps of the municipality of Burgos in the state of Tamaulipas, which borders the United States. In all, the researchers have numbered so far 4,926 paintings, however it’s been very difficult for them to date them. It’s believed these were made by local hunter-gatherer people and could be as old as 6,000 years.

The findings were unveiled at the Historic Archaeology meeting held recently in Mexico’s National History Museum. The paintings are colored in hues of red, yellow, black, and white and depict various scenes from the authors’ lives, like fishing, hunting, animals, insects and of course people. Astronomical, religious, as well as abstract scenes were also reported, and remarkably most of the paintings are well preserved. One of the paintings stands out in particular as it depicts an atlatl, a pre-Hispanic hunting weapon.

5,000 cave paintings tucked away in the Mexican mountainside

mexico cave painting

What’s makes the findings even more remarkable is that for years archaeologists and anthropologists believed the Burgos area had never been inhabited by pre-Hispanic cultures, like hunter-gatherers.

“It’s important because with this we were able to document the presence of pre-Hispanic groups in Burgos, where before we said there were none,” said archeologist Martha Garcia Sanchez of the Autonomous University of Zacatecas.

An age of persecution

mexico cave painting

The paintings were made by at least three groups known as the Guajolotes, Iconoplos and Pintos, and around the time the conquistadors’ persecutions were in full, other groups like the Cadimas, Conaynenes, Mediquillos, Mezquites, Cometunas and Canaimes also migrated towards the San Carlos mountain range.

“These groups escaped Spanish control for almost 200 years,” Garcia Sanchez said. “They fled to the San Carlos mountain range where they had water, plants and animals to eat. The Spaniards didn’t go into the mountain and its valleys.”

mexico cave painting

The History blog has some interesting info for a bit more of context:

There are references to indigenous groups who fled the conquering Spaniards and hid out in the San Carlos mountains for 200 years. As late as 1750 there are records of these nomadic peoples making it hard to evangelize Burgos. There are no official names of the tribes. They are referred to by nicknames assigned them based on perceived characteristics like “painted” or “mangy,” clothing or activities like “shoemakers,” or the family names of ranchers by the random assortment of conquistadors, religious men and indigenous peoples who ran into them.

There wasn’t much in the way of congress, therefore. The Spanish avoided following them into the mountains, and since there was a literal bounty on their heads — 25 pesos for every indigenous scalp and 60 pesos for every ransomed “captive” — these groups were destroyed before anything about them was recorded. We know basically nothing about their languages, religious rituals and cultural traditions. This huge cache of art, therefore, is an immensely important anthropological resource.

One of the eleven sites made for a particularly popular cave canvas as no less than 1,550 different scenes have been identified at the location now dubbed as “The Cave of Horses”. How were these paintings rendered, though? Early North Americans used organic dyes and minerals, and there’s no reason to believe the Burgos caves were made otherwise. Still, chemical analysis is currently in the process of precisely establishing the nature of the paintings, as well as their age.

The latter aspect has been extremely aggravating to archaeologists, who are always looking to pinpoint their findings even in the most loosest of time frames. No artifacts were discovered at either of the sites, which means that no dating can be made until the chemical analysis is over.

via io9 / Photos ©AFP PHOTO / INAH

Red Dot is oldest cave art found yet – Neanderthals could be artists

Hand stencils, red dots and animal figures currently represent the oldest examples yet found so far in cave art in Europe; using a new, improved technique, researchers have dated the walls at 11 Spanish locations, including the World Heritage sites of Altamira, El Castillo and Tito Bustillo, and found that one motif, a faint red dot, is over 40.000 years old.

A new method

When archaeologists tried out a new dating technique they have been waiting for years, they were shocked to see the paintings were thousands of years older than previously thought – so old that it’s actually more likely they were painted by Neanderthals, so this technique not only changes the way we view the paintings themselves, but the way we regard our Neanderthal cousins as well.

The findings being reported today represent just an initial step in an “ongoing program” to date pretty much all the important, very old cave paintings in Europe: hundreds of sites are planned for dating. The program is lead by Alistair Pike from the University of Bristol, who is also lead author of the paper published in the journal Science.

“We were not expecting these results,” Zilhao said. “When we put this project together, the idea was to improve the chronology of rock art, and particularly in the case of Spain.

Our Neanderthal cousins

Neanderthals, while stronger and faster than humans, were thought to be less gifted in the art section, so it’s quite surprising to see that they might have created these paintings.

“Neanderthals, of course, have had this bad press for a long time,” the University of Barcelona’s Joao Zilhao, a member of the research team, told reporters. “But the research developments over the last decade have shown that this is probably not deserved.”

How the tests were done

The tests were conducted on 50 Paleolithic paintings in 11 Spanish caves, including the famous pictures of horses and human hands at the Altamira and El Castillo caves. Previously, these caves have been tested using radiocarbon tests, but now, Pike’s team used a different technique that analyzed the proportions of uranium, thorium and related elements in the calcite deposits in the elements formed above the paintings.

This is an interesting approach, for many reasons. First of all scientists don’t have to depend on getting a reading from the paint itself, which is almost certainly contaminated or may not be even tested at all. Also, there is only a minimum risk of damaging the paintings – unlike with carbon dating.

“That does two things,” Pike explained. “It means we stop before we damage the painting, and secondly it proves to us and our audience that these things are directly above the art itself.”

The tests take advantage of the major advantages made recently, relying on the state of the art in mass spectrommetry, which also means the scientists didn’t require much of a sample.

“Perhaps 20 years ago, we would have needed a whole gram of material, and now we need one-hundredth of that size,” Pike said.

Zilhao said the Neanderthal vs. Homo sapiens debate could shed light on the roots of our own culture, and explain many things we still don’t know about Neanderthals.

“Cave painting is of course one of the most exquisite examples of human symbolic behavior,” he said. “And that’s what makes us human.”

Pictures via NBC