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7600Prehistoric cave paintings took up to 20,000 years to complete

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  • Chris
    Oct 15, 2008
      Thought this was interesting: hundreds of generations may have added to the original
      cave paintings. Imagine being able to add something to cathedral windows or castle


      It may have taken Michelangelo four long years to paint his fresco on the ceiling of the
      Sistine Chapel, but his earliest predecessors spent considerably longer perfecting their
      own masterpieces.

      By comparing the ratio of uranium to thorium in the thin layers on top of the cave art,
      researchers were able to calculate the age of the paintings

      Scientists have discovered that prehistoric cave paintings took up to 20,000 years to

      Rather than being created in one session, as archaeologists previously thought, many of
      the works discovered across Europe were produced over hundreds of generations who
      added to, refreshed and painted over the original pieces of art.

      Until now it has been extremely difficult to pinpoint when prehistoric cave paintings and
      carvings were created, but a pioneering technique is allowing researchers to date cave art
      accurately for the first time and show how the works were crafted over thousands of years.

      Experts now hope the technique will help provide a valuable insight into how early human
      culture developed and changed as the first modern humans moved across Europe around
      40,000 years ago.

      Dr Alistair Pike, an archaeologist at Bristol University who is leading the research, said:
      "The art gives us a really intimate window into the minds of the individuals who produced
      them, but what we don't know is exactly which individuals they were as we don't know
      exactly when the art was created. If we can date the art then we can relate that to the
      artefacts we find in the ground and start to link the symbolic thoughts of these individuals
      to where, when and how they were living."

      Dr Pike and his team were able to date the paintings using a technique known as uranium
      series dating

      Hundreds of caves have been discovered across Europe with elaborate prehistoric
      paintings and carvings on their walls. It is thought the designs, which often depict scenes
      of animals, like bison, grazing or hunting expeditions, were created up to 40,000 years
      ago – sometime after humans began moving from southern Europe into northern Europe
      during the last ice age.

      Traditional dating techniques have relied on carbon dating the charcoal and other pigment
      used in the paintings, but this can be inaccurate as it only gives the date the charcoal was
      created not when the work was crafted.

      "When you go into these caves today there is still charcoal lying on the ground, so the
      artists at the time could have been using old charcoal rather than making it fresh
      themselves," explained Dr Pike.

      "If this was the case, then the date for the painting would be very wrong. Taking samples
      for carbon dating also means destroying a bit of these precious paintings because you
      need to take away a bit of the pigment.


      "For carvings, it is virtually impossible to date as there is no organic pigment containing
      carbon at all."

      The scientists have used their technique to date a series of famous Palaeolithic paintings
      in Altamira cave near Santillana del Mar, northern Spain. Known as the "Sistine Chapel of
      the Palaeolithic", the elaborate works were thought to date from around 14,000 years ago.

      But in research published today by the Natural Environment Research Council's new
      website Planet Earth, Dr Pike discovered some of the paintings were between 25,000 and
      35,000 years old. The youngest paintings in the cave were 11,000 years old.

      Dr Pike said: "We have found that most of these caves were not painting in one go, but the
      painting spanned up to 20,000 years. This goes against what the archaeologists who
      excavated in the caves and found archaeology for just one period.

      "It is probably the case that people did not live in the caves they painted. It seems the
      caves they lived in were elsewhere and there was something special about the painted

      Bison on the ceiling of the polychrome chamber
      in the Altamira cave in northern Spain

      Dr Pike and his team were able to date the paintings using a technique known as uranium
      series dating, which was originally developed by geologists to date rock formations such
      as stalactites and stalagmites in caves.

      As water seeps through a cave, it carries extremely low levels of dissolved radioactive
      uranium along with the mineral calcium carbonate. Over time small amounts of calcium
      carbonate are deposited to form hard layer over the paintings and this layer also traps the
      uranium. Due to its radioactive properties, the uranium slowly decays to become another
      element known as thorium.

      By comparing the ratio of uranium to thorium in the thin layers on top of the cave art, the
      researchers were able to calculate the age of the paintings.

      The researchers have also applied their technique to engravings found in rocks around
      Cresswell Crags in Derbyshire, which are Britain's only examples of ice age cave art. They
      proved the engravings were made at least 12,000 years ago.

      Professor Pablo Arias, an expert on Palaeolithic cave art at University of Cantabria, Spain,
      said: "Until about ten years ago it was only possible to date cave art by using the style of
      the figures, but this new technique developed by Bristol allows that date to be accurately

      "We want to study how the people of the time behaved and how they felt and Palaeolithic
      art gives us a way of looking at the type of symbols that were important to them, so we
      need to know when the people who were making the art actually lived."