Today, a new look at old art. The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
Cave art reminds me of witches in the opera
Dido and Aeneas. As they plan their mischief, they sing,
In our deep vaulted cell, the charm we'll prepare. Well, cave pictures
evoke that same arcane magic. Now Science writer Michael Balter tells
about a debate over paintings in the Chauvet Caves of south central France. When
were they made?
They might've been done by any of three Stone Age European cultures: The
Aurignacian, the Gravettian, and the Magdalenian. The Aurignacian culture dates
from at least 32,000 years ago up to the Gravettian culture. And it dates from
around 27,000 years ago. The Magdalenian period follows from 18 to 10 thousand
The Chauvet paintings are surrounded by charcoal that dates to the beginning of
the earliest era, the Aurignacian. Uncorroborated dating of a few charcoal
samples from the walls themselves agrees. And the cave's entrance collapsed
long before the Magdalenian period. But the pictures were done with the sophistication
of Renaissance art. Could anything so good be so old?
Well, let's look at the three cultures. The more recent people, the Magdalenians
were reindeer hunters in southern Europe during the last ice age. Much of their
art is in their highly sophisticated harpoon and spear points, and in other carvings.
And their artists clearly did make many of the best cave paintings.
Their predecessors, the Gravettians, lived in more hospitable European climates,
and their art was striking. It was they who made the famous Venus figurines -- the
so-called Goddesses with their large breasts and flaring hips. The Gravettians were
probably first to work with fired ceramics.
The Aurignacian period -- the earliest -- included late Neanderthals along with early
modern humans. Those humans probably had the first full ability to speak. They did
sophisticated flint chipping, and we have carved animals from that period that are quite
haunting. A 32,000-year-old figure of a man with a lion's head looks like a study
figure for the special effects in a 21st-century science fiction movie.
And we're back to the lovely Chauvet Cave art. It's a lot like cave art from the later
Magdalenian period, even though the physical evidence suggests it's fifteen thousand
years older. Stylistic analysis of one picture shows that the artists laid down a
background of horned animals, then placed four finely drawn charging horses in the
foreground. As we weigh the delicacy and conviction of the picture, it's very hard
to accept the chronological evidence -- surely there's a way around it; surely this
But consider something else: While we've had things like writing and the wheel only
in the last five thousand years, this level of expressivity is another matter. Perhaps
it's been a part of our being ever since we've worn our human form. Our
thirty-thousand-year-old forebears might well have made these pictures after all.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
M. Balter, Going Deeper Into the Grotte Chauvet. Science, Vol. 321, 15
August, 2008, pp. 904-905.
Much of Balter's article is based upon work by Australian Archaeologist
whose website includes the best photo I've seen of the Grotte Chauvet horses:
See also, the Wikipedia entries for
Aurignacian, (The lion man image is from this source.)
and Chauvet Cave (or its French name, Grotte Chauvet.)
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2008 by John H.