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SALT LAKE CITY — When did the first human decide to pick up a piece of charcoal, scrape it against a surface, and draw something that made them feel - something that seemed important? And why did they do it? When did we start making art?
While we still don't have a scientific answer for the why, we're now pretty sure of when humans decided to start painting in caves. Researchers are almost certain that the paintings at Cauvet Cave in France are the oldest known in the world, dating to somewhere between 21,000 and 32,000 years old.
The paintings show a wide variety of animals, 13 species in all, including horses, cave lions, deer and even rhinoceros. It also shows one of the oldest "Venus" figures, that is, depictions of a woman. The paintings are clear, precise and very advanced - so much so that some have questioned whether they are as old as they appear to be.
Radiocarbon dating of the charcoal in the cave has purported to show that the paintings were approximately 30,000-32,000 years old. A study published May 7 claims to show that the cave was definitely sealed by 21,000 years ago, after three separate falling rock events covered the entrance until it was rediscovered in 1994. That means the art must be at least 21,000 years old.
"Remarkably agreeing with the radiocarbon dates of the human and animal occupancy, this study confirms that the Chauvet cave paintings are the oldest and the most elaborate ever discovered, challenging our current knowledge of human cognitive evolution," the study stated.
There has been debate about the age of the paintings, with some scientists claiming that stylistic comparisons other paintings show they are from the Magdalenian culture, which existed in the area from about 18,000 to 10,000 years ago. That culture is known for its extensive hunting of reindeer and elaborate ivory carvings.
But if the cave was sealed at 21,000 years ago, it becomes difficult to see how the Magdalenian culture could have been the artists. That strengthens the case for the Aurignacian culture as the earliest known painters. That culture coincides with the arrival of modern humans in Europe.
The Aurignacians are also responsible for the oldest known example of art that depicts a real object, specifically the Venus of Hohle Fels, which is a carving of a rotund woman found in Germany in 2008 and dating to about 35,000 to 40,000 years ago.
All this calls into question the dating of art based on comparisons with other similar works. "These results have significant implications for the archeological, human and rock art sciences and seriously challenge rock art dating based on stylistic criteria," the report states. "This will furthermore confirm the existence of an already extremely mature art at that time period during which only few elaborate engraving are known, but no other paintings."