On the Age of Palaeolithic Cave Painting

deutsch  english   español    français


Berlin · 2015  Uwe Topper topper

Slightly shortened translation of my German article from 2001

Critics of chronology claim that the age of palaeolithic cave painting cannot stretch to tens of thousands of years but at the most to two or three thousand years. Some caves have only been painted in recent decades. This essay is not only concerned with fakes and falsifications but suggests a new discussion on this subject.

1. The Cave ChauvetChauvet

The cave of Combe d’Arc in southern France, now called Grotte Chauvet after its discoverer, is esteemed „the greatest sensation in this field of art in a millennium“ and the best in all French cave art. Experts as well as politicians praise the paintings as being the artistically highest developed and at the same time oldest example of palaeolithic art. They are now said to be 35.000 years old (Clottes 2001). For comparison: Lascaux is thought to be 20.000 years old, Altamira 17.000 years.
Jean Clottes in his article in National Geographic (Spanish version p.82) wonders on this point but holds it up: For decades experts taught that the development of art was a slow process, starting with simple drawings and leading to naturalist representations full of dynamics. The art of Chauvet stands at the top of this development by its fine shadings and the genial use of perspective.

Figure 1: National Geographic Cover, August 2001

Yet radio-carbon dates obtained in the cave surprised prehistorians: Twice as old as the most famous paintings, they now stand for the oldest and at the same time highest culmination point of this art. Seems to me like we had similarly astounding issues before, e.g. the pyramids of Egypt.
But how did scientists arrive at this conclusion?
„We have already 30 datings bei C-14 of this cave, more than of any other site of cave art. Those samples show us that the cave Chauvet had been used some 32.000 radiocarbon years ago, which equals 35.000 civil years. A second group of persons entered the cave 6.000 years later, whereby we don’t know whether they only visited the cave or added more paintings,“ says Jean Clottes, director of the expert team at the cave. With his eleven colleagues he is widening the entrance and prepares the site for research while trying not to disturb the somewhat fragile ecological balance there. The French government allotted a high sum (corresponding to 1.25 million Euro) for the first two years. Clottes proudly declares: For the first time in cave painting research only experts are at work here. Another team of 16 specialists are at hand and helped prepare the first publication of this sensational discovery (just appeared in Edition du Seuil, Paris, mai 2001, not consulted here).
Let us forget the exuberant hymns of the experts (even Gerhard Bosinski of Cologne did not abstain from praising the new discovery) and cut the objects down to what they are: paintings of animals in palaeotlithic stile somehow resembling those of other cave paintings in France and Spain. Yet they are a bit different.
The fanciful interpretations of the paintings in the mentioned article are rather funny and don’t deserve to be quoted, but the aspect of the bears and other animals are such that some laughter cannot be suppressed. They resemble Disney figures as we know them from our comics: the ear is dislocated, the eye just missing, the snout a sweet smile. Another bear is a caricature of an elderly pensioner with thick nose and stubby beard, a third one shows a bad snout veiled behind diffuse lines, demonstrating coquettish red arrow points at his neck. The nose of this black outlined bear is pointed red.Löwinnen
The cave had been an asile for bears, they left their foot prints and dug out holes. At least 147 bears died here as is pretended from the amount of skulls found in the cave. A prehistoric visitor positioned one of those skulls on a rock that had fallen down from the ceiling. The charcoal remnants found beneath the skull are 35.000 years old (p. 84). Looks to me as if a prehistoric hunter took some charcoal and placed it on a rock, and on top he put the skull of a bear, then musing how archaeologists would be puzzled when they discover it more than a thousand generations later.

Figure 2: Lionesses hunting a rhinoceros

Among the paintings we have elefants with slippers at their feet, a hose pipe as trunk and a broken tail – caricatures as you can‘t imagine them more childlike. There is a bull on the womb of a woman putting his mouth eagerly right to the hairy delta of the lady thus resembling a modern tattoo. There is a lion that could be a monkey, bears with a lioness‘ head, horses in the stile of Franz Marc (by chance not in blue). There is an eagle-owl seen from front with closed eyes, the only one in all palaeolithic art, it is said. But the queerest are the rhinos – monstrosities never seen before. Surely the painter rhinoceroshad no knowledge of such animals. He drew several outlines, up to four side by side, playing on the well known occurrence that the human eye selects the lines which seem to be the best, as every student if fine arts knows. Experts call these paintings „studies of movement“ or „using refined perspective“. Other miscarried drawings are designated as „drafts“.

Figure 3: Woolly Rhinoceros

In some places the artist had to rub away the paint because the drawings obviously were totally blundered. There exists even an entire wall cleaned and repainted again. In other instances the painter covered the miscarried lines with white paint and thus created a shining background, unique in this art, and said to be the personal characteristic of this artist at Chauvet.
Nearly all animals rush to the left, those that move opposite are even worsely painted. Whoever talks of mastery of art misuses language.
The hand prints which are so important for this stage of palaelothic stile are not missing. In all there remain 500 hand prints in the cave. At one spot we have 92 red prints of the right hand of a single man (of 175 cm stature) arranged in such a way that they represent a bison or rhinoceros. This type of arrangement we have seen in Marsoulas (France). Did they inspire Chauvet? Impossible, because they are 20.000 years younger. So it must be the other way around.
As far as I could learn from the papers (e.g. Le Monde), Mr. Chauvet was guardian of this and some neighbouring caves for many years. He had entered the cave without seeing the paintings for ten years. This is a common feature and not disclosing anything. But some other observation (p. 88) hints at a problem: The same animals reappear throughout the cave, the repetition gives a certain feeling of unity to the assembly. All paintings are done by the same artist.
One who has seen how archaic paintings are still executed nowadays by tribal communities (as the author has whitnessed with the Kafirs in the Hindukush, but you could tell the same from Bushmen) knows that the paintings usually are the work of many persons in the tribe or clan, men, women and children. It is a group ritual, not the exposure of a single artist.
Irritating are the „pictures in white“. The soft clay had been scraped off the walls thus exposing the chalky underlayer. But these drawings are not less clumsy than the black or red ones. And they could be scraped off entirely when miscarried, as seen on the photos. The scratches seem to be very fresh which inspires doubt as to their age even considering the excellent conditions of preservation that are supposed to have ruled in this cave for 35.000 years.
In my recently published book (Fälschungen der Geschichte, 2001) I summoned my sceptical thoughts: „The paintings in the cave Chauvet are so stupidly faked that one loses interest in discussing them. You only have to compare photos taken in the first moments after the dicovery with those of later publications where blunt mistakes are eradicated.“ Now I do realise that this is difficult to prove because the photos were taken under different conditions of light and from different angles.

2. Dating cave paintings

This brings us to the general problem of dating cave art. Not all of the famous cave paintings in France and Spain are unanimously considered authentic. Some like the ones in Rouffignac and in Niaux, to name only two of the better known, are still under discussion wether they are genuine. This should put into question all palaeolithic art in general. Both caves had been visited since the 18th centruy because they are easily accessible. Nobody ever refered to the paintings. Those of Rouffignac had only been discovered in 1956, the ones in Niaux in 1906.
The first discoveries, especially the paintings in Altamira (Spain), were unmasked as fakes by leading experts like Rudolf Virchow, Emile Cartailhac and others. Only in a second attempt 22 years later, the Jesuit Henri Breuil declared them to be authentic and succeeded in convincing his colleagues. Cartailhac repented, Virchow had just died. The Jesuits won the field. Hugo Obermaier and other theologians like Ferdinand Birkner, chaplain and dean for prehistory in Munich, as well as Teilhard de Chardin (who had been convicted of fraud in the Piltdown skull affair which was established as falsification)  and Felix Rüschkamp, Jesuit as well, took the lead in prehistory and held it for 40 years (see Wendt p. 306). Their dating and interpretation of prehistoric art was strategically overwhelming, the background thereof can only be divined.
If we skip all disclosed fakes and only regard those art objects deemed to be authentic, the problem of determining their age remains. What is still surprising: When one touches the paint in the caves it remains on the finger, or at least it did so when they were first examined. By the time I entered the caves in the 1960s the paint was dry and hard as the wall. So they had been fluid some ten thousand years and dried out in decades. The technique of applying the paint to the wall was a surprise, too. Prehistoric man used colour pencils and brushes with liquid paint. He even dominated some kind of airbrush.
Unexplained is the way the first paintings were dated. At the Congress in Lisbon 1890 Vilanova suggested an age of 10 to 20 thousand years for the Altamira paintings, the engravings being even older. The only reason given for this high age was that they depict animals like mammoth and ice-age rhinoceros that had been extinguished long ago, following the chronology of Darwin that never had been proven at all.
Vilanova also argued that no painter in all his life could accomplish so many paintings as are in Altamira cave (Baumann 1953), but I think this is nonsense. One summer would suffice for a painter if he could work undisturbed.
Another reason for doubt lays in the recurring stilistic identity. There are stone slades with sketches in several caves in France which are 300 km afar, yet they must stem from the same artist (Wendt p. 229). In Spain we have similar cases. It remains doubtfull whether prehistoric man did travel such vast distances in the jungles of the ice-age.
That is not all. On bisons in Altamira appear letters of an archaic script, also between animals and on bone fragments found in the cave La Madeleine (see Cartailhac and Breuil). They are similar to the tipical Iberic signs of numbers and local cattle brands and rather belong to the early Metal Age. This yields no trustworthy dates either but would make them younger by many millenniums.
There are also horses depicted with harness and bridle and brand marks, in France as well as in Spain, painted and engraved, which strongly indicates that domesticated animals are represented. Hunting magic no longer serves as motive.
So the other main assumption of the theologian‘s explanation – the paintings are expression of a religious weltanschauung impregnated by shamanist rituals and totemic inspiration thus making the caves to sanctuaries and the artists to priests – no longer holds. The basic supposition of an „Urmonotheism“ as proposed by Herbert Kühn, in his time dean of prehistoric art in Germany (dissertation 1951), which projected Christian beliefs into primeval time, has to be questioned again.
The extraordinary quality of the paintings from an esthetic viewpoint had not been matter of consideration. The paintings are a wonderful decoration yet this connotation is very modern. The main publication of Henri Breuil bore the title: „400 centuries of mural art“ thus stressing not only the high age but also the classification as art so as to underline the important conclusion that Western Europe has always had such a high civilization, and every modern man had to bow his head to the ability of our forefathers who deserved reverence in this respect. And this since time immemorial which implies that for the future we should not worry.
Researcher Anette Laming-Emperaire writes that parietal prehistoric art is very uniform and had undergone only minor development. This is another vicious circle resulting from the unwarranted assumption that the paintings were executed during an immensely long period of time. The enduring stilistic unity over 40.000 years is in itself a very questionable thesis that reveals an impossible frame of mind.
The abnormal high age proposed for the palaeolithic paintings results from Darwin’s chronology. Apart from being acceptable for theological reasons  (Wendt 1965) it could never be confirmed by external evidence. By this the discussion rather drifts to an ideological dispute instead of scientific research. It reveals the uncertainty to give any concrete answer to the question: How old is the object? Chronology is a floating and misty undertaking riddling our efforts to understand history.

Baumann, Hans (1953): Die Höhlen der großen Jäger (Reutlingen)
Breuil, Henri S.J. (1952): Quatre cents siècles d'Art pariétal (Montignac)
Cartailhac, Emile and Breuil, Henri (1906): La Caverne d'Altamira à Santillane (Monaco)
Clottes, Jean (2001): Cueva de Chauvet, in: National Geographic España, August 2001, S. 76-93. see also www.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0108
Clottes, J. et al. (2001): La Grotte Chauvet: L'Art des Origines (Ed. du Seuil, Paris) not considered here
Kühn, Herbert (1951): Das Problem des Urmonotheismus (Wiesbaden)
Laming-Emperaire, Anette (1962): La Signification de l'Art rupestre paléolithique (Paris)
(1963): L'Archéologie préhistorique (Paris)
Topper, Uwe (1998): Die Große Aktion (Tübingen) - (2001): Fälschungen der Geschichte (München)
Wendt, Herbert (1953): Ich suchte Adam (Rowohlt 1965)

I would like to write a comment to this text: