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C. Fritz/MC

Ice Age Artists Used Charcoal Over 10,000 Years to Create Europe's Oldest Cave Paintings

C. Fritz/MC
C. Fritz/MC

Tiny bits of charcoal found in a cave in France are providing new clues into how our prehistoric ancestors lived some 35,000 years ago.

The samples were taken from the Chauvet Pont d'Arc Cave in southern France, whose wall paintings are the oldest in Europe and among the oldest in the world. Few people have ever been inside the cave, which was discovered only in 1994 and remains one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time—but some might recognize it from Werner Herzog's award-winning documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

The results of the charcoal analysis, published today in the April issue of the journal Antiquity, enabled researchers to paint a picture of how humans created art in the Ice Age, as well as the bitter climactic conditions of that time.

Researchers collected 171 samples of charcoal from hearths and torch marks in the cave. Other bits of charcoal were found directly beneath the animal paintings, which have been preserved in incredible detail after being sealed off by a rockfall thousands of years ago.

A drawing of rhinos inside the Chauvet cave
C. Fritz/MC

The analysis revealed that all but one of the charcoal samples came from burnt pine trees; the remaining one came from buckthorn. That doesn't sound all that impressive until you consider that some of these drawings were created nearly 10,000 years apart, during two different Ice Age periods. Put differently, for millennia, humans chose to use the same material for the sole purpose of creating art.

Researchers concluded that while other types of wood could have been used, the artists who created these cave paintings continued to choose pine, likely due to the availability of fallen branches as well as its combustion properties. But more remarkably, researchers believe these early artists selected it because it was the perfect medium for their art, ideal "for the smudging and blending techniques used in cave paintings," according to the study.

Over the years, the paintings have been praised for their artistic merit and use of motion. As Herzog commented in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, one artist's rendering of a bison with eight legs suggested movement—"almost a form of proto-cinema."

These findings also reveal what the climate was like during that time, and it was anything but balmy. The researchers write:

"Pine is a pioneer taxon [group] with an affinity for mountainous environments and survived in refuges during the coldest periods of the last ice age. As such, it attests, first and foremost, to the harsh climatic conditions that prevailed during the various occupations of the cave."

To preserve the cave paintings, only researchers are allowed inside the Chauvet Cave. However, a replica of the cave was built in France's Ardèche region and remains open to tourists.

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
6 Priceless Treasures Lost in Shipwrecks
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iStock

In the lore around treasures lost at sea, most of the excitement goes to pirate’s gold and the sunken luxuries of the Titanic. But in the centuries of human seafaring, many lesser-known priceless objects, from literary manuscripts to scientific research, have been claimed by the depths. Here are some tales of those losses, from a lifetime of work by a 19th-century woman who was an expert in cephalopods, to a rare book by Dickens that went down with the Lusitania.

1. LOUIS DE JAUCOURT'S ANATOMICAL LEXICON

Always, always, always back up your work. Of course, that's easier now than it was in the 18th century, when French scholar Louis de Jaucourt dispatched his six-volume Lexicon medicum universale to his Amsterdam publisher, a move intended to evade French censorship. The medical dictionary, on which he'd spent 20 years, was completely lost when the ship it was on sank off Holland's coast. Luckily, Jaucourt rebounded when Denis Diderot asked him to contribute to the Encyclopédie, now considered one of the greatest works of Enlightenment thought, for which he used his notes from the lost manuscript. Jaucourt became the publication's most prolific author, penning 40,000 articles—so many he was nicknamed l'esclave de l’Encyclopédie, or the "slave of the Encyclopedia."

2. THE FIELDWORK OF ALFRED RUSSEL WALLACE

Portrait of Alfred Russel Wallace, Welsh naturalist and explorer
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1852, following four years of research in the Amazon, the British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace was ready to return to England. He loaded his copious notes, animal and plant specimens, and drawings onto the brig Helen. Just 26 days into the voyage, the vessel caught fire. Wallace only had time to hastily fill a tin box with a few drawings of fish and palms and some scientific notes before joining the crew in the lifeboat. After 10 days marooned at sea, they were rescued by the brig Jordeson—but most of Wallace's work was gone forever. As he lamented in an October 19, 1852 letter, "The only things which I saved were my watch, my drawings of fishes, and a portion of my notes and journals. Most of my journals, notes on the habits of animals, and drawings of the transformations of insects, were lost.” While he continued as a leading naturalist—albeit one overshadowed in his evolution research by Charles Darwin—Wallace was never able to reconstruct those years of fieldwork.

3. THE CEPHALOPOD RESEARCH OF JEANNE VILLEPREUX-POWER

Before Jeanne Villepreux-Power’s 19th-century research, most scientists thought the Argonauta argo, or paper nautilus, scavenged its shell from other animals. But by inventing the modern aquarium, Villepreux-Power could study the species first-hand, and witness how it grows and repairs its own shell. The breakthrough was one of many discoveries made by the pioneer in cephalopod research, one of the few women to achieve prominence in Victorian science. She might be better known today if it weren't for the fact that when she and her husband decided to move from Sicily to London, the vessel on which they’d shipped their possessions—including the majority of her drawings, notes, and equipment—foundered off the coast of France in 1843. After the devastating loss, she never published again.

4. A COPY OF A CHRISTMAS CAROL OWNED BY CHARLES DICKENS

Sinking of the Lusitania
Three Lions/Getty Images

When Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat realized the RMS Lusitania was doomed that fateful day in 1915, he dashed to his cabin, using the light from a few matches to try to find the literary treasures he’d brought aboard. These included original drawings by Vanity Fair author William Makepeace Thackeray, as well as an edition of A Christmas Carol owned by Charles Dickens himself. The edition was irreplaceable, since it included Dickens’s notes related to his 1844 copyright suit against the illicit republishing of his story. In the book Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, Erik Larson vividly describes Lauriat’s harrowing experience when the ocean liner was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland: Lauriat grabbed the leather briefcase containing the Dickens, but left the Thackeray sketches behind. Rushing out to the deck, he saw a lifeboat packed with women and children that was being dragged down by the sinking ship. He jumped in with the briefcase, yet was unable to free the lifeboat, and in the escape into the water he lost the precious cargo. Out in the waves, he managed to evade entanglement with an antenna, swim to a collapsible lifeboat, and survive. One of the few items he managed to save were photographs of his baby, which he told his wife were his "mascot."

5. WRITINGS OF JOSÉ ASUNCIÓN SILVA

Portrait of José Asunción Silva

Many Colombians can recite the first lines from the influential Modernist poet José Asunción Silva's "Nocturne III"—"A night / A night full of hushings, of the curled wool of perfume / And incanting wing"—and it’s even printed in microtext on the 5000 Colombian peso bill. The poem, written in 1892, is believed to be a tribute to Silva’s half-sister. Silva suffered another blow in 1895, when many of his manuscripts, including a draft of a novel, were lost in a shipwreck. He left his diplomatic post in Venezuela, and dedicated all his time to reconstructing the drowned novel. But his melancholy continued: After visiting a doctor to ask the exact position of his heart, he shot himself in 1896. His rewritten novel—After-Dinner Conversation (De sobremesa) —wasn’t published until 1925.

6. THE ART OF GIOVANNI BATTISTA LUSIERI

The South-east Corner of the Parthenon, Athens by Giovanni Battista Lusieri
Giovanni Battista Lusieri, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Giovanni Battista Lusieri was a meticulous painter of the Italian landscape, particularly its classical ruins. In large panoramas and more compact watercolors, he depicted the Acropolis, views of Rome and Naples, and, his favorite, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Some of his most striking works captured the volcano at night, illuminating the darkness with its orange glow. Lord Byron called him "an Italian painter of the first eminence." Yet his name is now obscure. This is partly due to the years he stopped painting to help Lord Elgin remove and ship the Parthenon Marbles to London. But when Lusieri's artwork was being sent home from Greece after his death in 1821, a shipwreck destroyed nearly half of it (including a spectacular 25-foot-long panorama of Athens), helping to ensure his fall from fame.

BONUS: PEKING MAN

A replica of the Peking Man Skull
A replica of the Peking Man Skull

When paleontologists discovered the bones of "Peking man" in a dig near Beijing in the 1920s, they were the oldest hominid fossils ever found. However, scientists can now only study the bones—thought to be about half a million years old—from casts. The Peking Man fossils were last seen in December 1941, but vanished during the Japanese occupation of China while they were being sent to the United States for safekeeping. There are many conjectures on their fate, from being secretly stored away in Japan, to being under a parking lot in China. Yet one enduring theory is that they were lost at sea on the Japanese freighter Awa Maru: In 1945, the ship was torpedoed in the Taiwan Strait by the USS Queenfish despite being guaranteed safe passage by the United States, leading to the loss of more than 2000 lives—and, it's said, the priceless Peking fossils [PDF].

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Peter Pfälzner, University of Tübingen
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Archaeologists Finally Identify a 4000-Year-Old Lost City in Iraq
Peter Pfälzner, University of Tübingen
Peter Pfälzner, University of Tübingen

In 2016, archaeologists excavating in the Autonomous Region of Kurdistan in Iraq discovered the remnants of a Bronze Age city near the modern village of Bassetki. It was large, and it appeared to have been occupied for more than 1000 years, from around 2200 to 1200 BCE. Ancient Mesopotamia, home to the earliest civilizations on Earth, had many cities. So which one was it?

The mystery remained until recently, when a language expert at the University of Heidelberg translated clay cuneiform tablets unearthed at the site in 2017. The archaeologists had discovered Mardaman, a once-important city mentioned in ancient texts, which had been thought lost to time.

The inscriptions were likely written around 1250 BCE when Mardaman (also called Mardama) was a part of the Assyrian Empire. According to the University of Tübingen archaeologists who unearthed the tablets, they describe the "administrative and commercial affairs" between the citizens of Mardaman and their Assyrian governor Assur-nasir. The account led the researchers to believe that the area where the tablets were recovered was once the governor's palace.

Excavation site in Iraq.
Peter Pfälzner, University of Tübingen

Situated on trade routes connecting Mesopotamia, Anatolia (modern Turkey), and Syria, Mardaman was a bustling commercial hub in its day. It was conquered and rebuilt several times, but after it was toppled by the Turukkaeans from the neighboring Zagros Mountains sometime in the 18th century BCE, it was never mentioned again in ancient texts. Experts had assumed that marked the end of Marmadan. This latest discovery shows that the city recovered from that dark period, and still existed 500 years later.

"The cuneiform texts and our findings from the excavations in Bassetki now make it clear that that was not the end," lead archeologist Peter Pfälzner said in a press statement. "The city existed continuously and achieved a final significance as a Middle Assyrian governor's seat between 1250 and 1200 BCE."

This lost chapter of history may never have been uncovered if the clay tablets were stored any other way. Archeologists found the 92 slabs in a pottery vessel that had been sealed with a thick layer of clay, perhaps to preserve the contents for future generations. The state in which they were found suggests they were stashed away shortly after the surrounding building was destroyed.

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