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.

Laser Scans Detect Hidden Buildings and Tunnels Beneath Alcatraz Prison

iStock.com/f8grapher
iStock.com/f8grapher

Isolated in the San Francisco Bay and surrounded by steep cliff faces, Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary seemed like the most secure place to keep dangerous criminals in the mid-20th century. But it's recently come to light that every inmate on Alcatraz Island lived above a series of potential escape routes that predated the prison's construction, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

In a new study published in the journal Near Surface Geophysics, archaeologists reported their discovery of structures and artifacts beneath the Alcatraz prison yard, including underground buildings, tunnels, and ammunition magazines. Guided by historical maps, documents, and photographs, they used laser scanning technology and ground-penetrating radar to locate the subterranean fortress close to the surface.

The site dates back to the mid-19th century, when Alcatraz Island was used for military purposes. The same natural features that would later make Alcatraz an appealing prison also made it an ideal coastal fortification. Enough brick buildings were built there to house 200 soldiers and enough food was shipped in to feed them for four months.

But the fortification wasn't used for its original purpose for very long. It was transformed into the West Coast's official military prison during the Civil War, and in the 1930s, the government turned it into a federal prison. Instead of tearing down the forts and tunnels leftover from its military days, workers left them intact and built over them to save money. Archaeologists plan to investigate the underground structures further without disturbing the historic site.

Alcatraz Prison closed in 1963, so the underground tunnels no longer pose a security problem. Today the island is part of the U.S. National Park Service and is a popular tourist attraction.

[h/t San Fransisco Chronicle]

The Site Where Julius Caesar Was Assassinated Will Open to the Public in 2021

iStock.com/Largo di Torre Argentina
iStock.com/Largo di Torre Argentina

Besides being a sanctuary for stray cats, Largo di Torre Argentina in Rome is best known as the place where Julius Caesar was stabbed 22 times by assassins in 44 BCE. As the city's oldest open-air square, the spot is an important piece of Roman history, but it's fallen into disrepair. Now, Condé Nast Traveler reports that Largo di Torre Argentina will reopen to the public following a $1.1 million restoration project.

The site includes four ancient temples, a medieval brick tower, and the ruins of the senate house where Caesar was murdered. About 20 feet below street level, it was excavated under the rule of Benito Mussolini in the 1920s, and has remained largely closed to the public since. Today, Largo di Torre Argentina is overgrown and accessible only to the feral cats that live there.

On Monday, February 25, Rome mayor Virginia Raggi announced that Largo di Torre Argentina will reopen in the second half of 2021. To get the site ready for the public, the city will add restrooms, install lights, and build walkways that allow visitors to explore the area. Stone ruins, some of which are stacked into piles, will be secured, and artifacts currently sitting in storage will be moved to a museum. The one area the project will avoid is the corner where the cat sanctuary is located.

Rome, of course, is filled with ancient ruins—some that residents weren't even aware of until recently. In 2014, a 2000-year-old Roman road was unearthed during the construction of a McDonald's.

[h/t Condé Nast Traveler]

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