Direct radiocarbon dates for prehistoric paintings at the Altamira, El Castillo and Niaux caves

Abstract

AMONG things that most strikingly distinguish modern humans from other hominids and the rest of the animal kingdom is the ability to represent things and events pictorially. Complex paintings of the type discovered in the Altamira, El Castillo, Niaux and Lascaux caves represent an important stepping stone in the cultural evolution of humankind. Until now dates were derived from style or dated remains left by prehistoric visitors and could be biased by prolonged occupation or visits unrelated to painting activity. Here we report the first radiocarbon dates for the charcoal used to draw stylistically similar bisons in these caves: 14,000 ± 400 yr BP in the Spanish caves of Altamira, 12,990 ± 200 yr BP in El Castillo, and 12,890 ± 160 yr BP for a bison of different style in the French Pyrenean cave of Niaux. Our results demonstrate the imprecise nature of stylistic dating and show that painting dates derived from remains of human activities should be used with caution.

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Valladas, H., Cachier, H., Maurice, P. et al. Direct radiocarbon dates for prehistoric paintings at the Altamira, El Castillo and Niaux caves. Nature 357, 68–70 (1992). https://doi.org/10.1038/357068a0

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