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The University of Southampton
ArchaeologyPart of Humanities

Research project: Dating the origins and development of Palaeolithic cave painting in Europe by U-series disequilibrium

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Cave art is one of the most important sources of information regarding symbolic behaviour and belief systems during the Palaeolithic. This project will employ uranium-series disequilibrium dating of calcite over-growths to investigate its origin and evolution.

Hand stencil from El Castillo, Spain
Hand Stencil

Cave art is one of the most important sources of information regarding symbolic behaviour and belief systems during the Palaeolithic. Furthermore, both figurative and non-figurative art is universally acknowledged by archaeologists and anthropologists to be a defining characteristic - perhaps the defining characteristic - of Homo sapiens. Despite the significance of cave art to our understanding of human behavioural evolution, its origin and evolution remains poorly understood. A key reason for this is chronological inaccuracy and imprecision; cave art is notoriously difficult to date with radiocarbon due to problems with contamination, the lack of organic pigments, and the potential use of old charcoal. As a result, further work to develop an absolute chronology is of critical importance.

Recent studies have demonstrated that uranium-series disequilibrium can successfully date thin calcite films that form on top of cave art, and thus provide a mechanism to constrain their age. Concentrating on northern Spain, these studies (e.g. Science 336, 1409) have demonstrated that a red disk in El Castillo is >40.8 ky, at least as old as the earliest modern humans in Spain, and a claviform-like symbol in Altamira is >35.6 ky, 20 ky years older than the famous polychrome bison paintings and demonstrating that the cave was the focus for episodes of paintings over a very long time period. Evidence for modern humans in northern Spain dates back to ~41,500 years ago, and before their arrival Neanderthals were present in the region. With the U-series dates providing only minimum ages in most cases, we cannot rule out that Neanderthals could have been responsible for some of the artistic traditions on display in the region. 

The current project will further investigate the origins and development of Palaeolithic cave art by building on this earlier research and using uranium-series disequilibrium to date the age of art not just in northern Spain, but from numerous localities across southern Europe. Funded by the National Environmental Research Council (NERC), it will produce one of the largest bodies of radiometric dates for the core regions of Palaeolithic cave paintings and engravings, and will allow us to relate the evolving artistic traditions to the social and behavioural changes that are recorded in the below-ground archaeology. Furthermore, it will allow an assessment of the mechanisms behind the first appearance of cave art, and whether its emergence relates solely to the arrival of modern humans or if Neanderthals were also in some way involved.

Related research groups

Centre for Applied Archaeological Analyses
Centre for Archaeology of Human Origins Contracting
Centre for the Archaeology of Human Origins
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