Avant-garde cave art

Paintings and animation date way back

2012 SCIENCE NEWS TOP 25: 20

Someone was painting on the walls of European caves nearly 41,000 years ago, several thousand years before researchers had thought. The creators of many of those ancient drawings also used cartoon-like effects to make bison and other creatures appear as if they were moving across the walls. But who the artists were remains an open question.

Ancient artists at France’s Chauvet Cave superimposed drawings of two bison, creating an eight-legged beast on the run. M. Azéma, J. Clottes, Chauvet Cave scientific team

Findings reported this year show that red disks, hand stencils and other drawings in several Spanish caves are of an age that Neandertals might have crafted them (SN: 7/28/12, p. 15).

But some researchers suspect that Homo sapiens, not Neandertals, were the artists. People could have started painting on cave walls as early as 45,000 years ago, either before or shortly after entering Europe. Many of the cave drawings in the study were made after Neandertals went extinct, the researchers reported, so they must have been created by people.

Many questions hinge on the paintings’ ages, but Stone Age cave art has long resisted efforts at precise dating. A method used in the Spanish caves estimates minimum and maximum ages by analyzing mineral deposits.

Whoever painted ancient caves, some of the artists took care to create the illusion of live-action scenes (SN: 6/30/12, p. 12). In France, dozens of figures superimpose two or more images of the same creature, perhaps to represent running, head tossing and tail shaking. A hunting scene in one cave shows a pride of lions, some drawn smaller than others as if farther away, lunging toward fleeing bison.

Experiments by French researchers suggest that ancient artists also engraved animals on disks that, when spun rapidly, made the creatures seem to move.

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Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.