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WiseGuy: The Author's Blog

The Painted Caves of Southern France, Part IX: Neanderthal Art

Artistic rendering of red ochre scalariform d.rawing on the walls of Cueva de Los Aviones in southeastern Spain. Scientists found this ladder shape made of red horizontal and vertical lines. The artwork dates to more than 64,000 years ago

by Richard W. Wise

Author: The Dawning: 31,000 BC

Copyright 2022


What of the Neanderthals? As part of the research for my novel, The Dawning: 31,000 BC, I have been seriously studying Paleolithic art for about four years. Even in that short time, previously held misconceptions about the brutish nature of Neanderthals—their life and culture—have been crumbling all about me. First, there was the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome and the discovery that--way back in Africa--Homo Neanderthalis and Homo Sapiens Sapiens interbred, making them part of the same species.
The first shock of the trip to Southern France came at the Museum of Prehistory in Les Eyzes de Tayak. The museum is located about five hundred feet from our hotel. My wife has a sore ankle, so our guide, Christine Desdemaines-Hugon, author of Stepping Stones and world-renowned expert on Paleolithic art
conducts me on a solo museum tour.
Set in a glass case on the second floor at about eye level, she points out three "crayons," each about the size and shape of my thumb. One is made of charcoal, one of red ochre, and the third is Manganese dioxide. "These," she announces, "were made and used by Neanderthals."
Red ochre and charcoal have many uses, but "Manganese dioxide—she points out—is toxic." Large amounts of this mineral have been found at Neanderthal diggings, and experiments by archeologists have proved that it is useful as a fire accelerant, particularly when powdered.  However, the morphology here suggests a crayon.

According to a 2018 article in National Geographic:
 "In three caves scattered across Spain, researchers found more than a dozen examples of wall paintings over 65,000 years old. At Cueva de Los Aviones, a cave in southeastern Spain, researchers also found perforated seashell beads and pigments that are at least 115,000 years old." 

 A new technique, uranium-thorium dating, used to redate these drawings, analyzes small rounded deposits formed by the evaporation of percolating water in limestone. These deposits are known as cave popcorn. Radioactive uranium decays slowly into thorium at a measurable rate, thus measuring the age of the deposit.
Even with this new technique, the dating of the drawing at Los Aviones has stimulated some controversy. A group of forty-four researchers wrote a critique of the dating method, suggesting that the Uranium-thorium method should be checked using other dating techniques. Archeologist Randall White has written that scrapings of the carbonite crust from one side of this same red ochre drawing have given a date of just 3,100 years ago. As of this writing, the controversy rages on.


Neanderthals and symbolism. Stay tuned for Part X.

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