Drawings on the full-size reproduction of Chauvet cave (© Patrick Aventurier/Getty Images)
Monet, Cézanne, Renoir and Degas are just a few of the world-famous artists from France. Now, a new study of paintings found on the walls of the Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cave 90km from Avignon reveals that they not only produced some of the world’s finest artists, but also the first.
Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the research used radiocarbon dating to show that the earliest paintings in the cave date back 37,000 years, making them 10,000 years older than previously believed.
What is radiocarbon dating?
Plants absorb carbon-14 isotopes during photosynthesis from CO2 in the air and store them in their cells. Animals then ingest the isotope when eating the plants, or for carnivores the animals that feed on them. No more carbon-14 is stored when these plants and animals die, but the ones already in their cells start the slow process of radioactive decay.
With a half-life of 5,730 years, scientists are able to measure the amount of carbon-14 up to 50,000 years into the past.
Researchers used samples of charcoal the Stone Age cave dwellers used for their paintings, charcoal pieces from the floor and cave bear bones, all containing traces of carbon-14 and were able to more accurately date the age of the paintings.
Why did previous studies get it wrong?
The problem is that CO2 levels in the air change over time so that the amount of carbon in the cells of organisms also varies. These fluctuations have to be taken into account to correctly estimate the age of fossils.
By reconstructing CO2 levels from the rings in ancient tree-trunks and the fossils of single-celled organisms, the scientists were able to more accurately refine the paintings’ age, making them 10 millennia older than previously thought.
It’s just a pity that the cave is closed to the public and that you can’t admire the prehistoric originals yourself. You’ll just have to watch famed German director Werner Herzog’s documentary about them instead.