Archaeological Interpretations of Upper Paleolithic Cave Paintings Research Paper

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  • Subject: Geography
  • Type: Research Paper
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Archaeological Interpretations of Upper Paleolithic Cave Paintings

There are many questions related to the chronological spread of Paleolithic tool production and paintings due to geographical differences in the progress of the spread of such tool production. While radiocarbon dating has furthered the ability to identify specific time period information there are still limitations to this type of data. There has been loose identification of chronological periods of production and in cave paintings the more complex paintings are not always those most recently created. Difficulty exists in the establishment of regional progressions of development. While the combination of radiocarbon, thermoluminescence, and electron spin resonance dating techniques assisted investigators for the upper Paleolithic period in the reconstruction of "a reasonably coherent global chronology." (Bar-Yosef, 2002) At the same time there are still significant standard deviations along with other limitations in this dating of archaeological findings. This study examines these issues and limitations and reports on the findings reported in literature in this area of study.

I. Evolution of Prehistoric Cave Art

The work of DeLeo, et al. (2001) reports that there are "sophisticated examples of European Paleolithic parietal art" in the caves located in Atlamira, Lascaux and Niaux near the Pyrenees reported to date to 12,000 -- 17,000 years ago in what is known as the Magdalenian period. However, it is also reported that paintings that are comparable in terms of their skill and their complexity have been found that were created approximately 30,000 years ago. In fact, drawing in the Chauvet cave in Vallon-Pon-d'Arc have undergone radiocarbon dating and have been confirmed to have been created 30,000 years ago by Aurignacian artists who were "accomplished carvers [and who] could create masterpieces comparable to the best Magdalenian art." (DeLeo, et al., 2001)

Chronological data on European prehistoric art has been based, although loosely "on the style of fauna depicted or on dated remains left by cave occupants" however radiocarbon dating of the pigments in the charcoal has made dating more precise. Accelerator mass spectrometry which is reported as relying on carbon isotopes being separated and counted makes a requirement of less of the sample material than did the tradition C-dating techniques. (DeLeo, 2001, paraphrased)

Smudges that torch bearer left in the caves are datable. There is reported to be evidence which is of an indirect nature on the painting activity prior to the Solutream period which is reported as "extensive" and to be derived from paintings in two French caves -- a 26.9-Khr-old bone chip is reported as having been removed from a fissure cross a stenciled hand at Gargas, along with three bones which had been burned and mixed with red and yellow ochre at Grotte at Arcy-sur-Cure aged at 26-28 Kyr; in addition to torch smears on the red frieze which dated to approximately 27 Kyr BP. (De Leo, 2001, paraphrased)

It is reported that charcoal from the drawings at four other French caves "has been dated" including investigations at Cougnac which dated approximately 23 to 25 Kyr BP. Stated is that the Chauvet caves, comprised by several chambers radiocarbon dating reported the dates 29.7 to 32.4 Kyr BP for charcoal (0.27 -- 1.40 mg carbon) from the animals dated in the Salle du Fond and indicated by the 'horse' panel of the Hillaire chamber.

II. Questions Regarding Paleolithic Archaeological Dating

Ofer Bar-Yosef (2002) writes that Paleolithic archaeology is such that "primarily addresses issues of stratigraphy, chronology, object assemblage analysis for defining cultural entities and adaptive strategies, examination of faunal and vegetable components and site formation processes. Investigations often culminate in a course-grained reconstruction of prehistoric lifeways with an evolutionary context." (Bar-Yosef, 2002, p.363) It is emphasized by modern research that there is a necessity of "establishing regional sequences and their Pleistocene and Holocene paleo-ecological conditions. Radiometric dates facilitate chronological correlations and the integration of the findings into a continent-wide record." (Bar-Yosef, 2002, p.363)

Combined radiocarbon, thermoluminescence, and electron spin resonance dating techniques assisted investigators for the upper Paleolithic period in the reconstruction of a coherent global chronology that is of a reasonable nature. (Bar-Yosef, 2002, paraphrased) It is reported that there are "large standard deviations in the Upper Paleolithic, the period under discussion, the combination of radiocarbon, thermoluminescence, and electron thermoluminescence and electron spin resonance readings, as well as ambiguities concerning the calibration of 14C dates at the range of 40 -- 30 thousand years ago, make it difficult to establish the precise onset of the Upper Paleolithic revolution spin resonance dating techniques." (Bar-Yosef, 2002, p.363)

Bar-Yosef writes that the term Upper Paleolithic period "was coined in Western Europe and is reported to mark the time "when Homo sapiens, referred to as Cro-Magnons replaced the European Neanderthals." (Bar-Yosef, 2002, p.364) Hallmarks of the achievements of the Homo sapiens are noted by "cultural manifestations of the blade-dominated lithic assemblages along with mobile and cave art." (Bar-Yosef, 2002, p.364) However, it is reported that doubts lingered due to limitations in scope and knowledge of pioneers of prehistoric research.

Questions that still linger related to the following: (1) how long Neanderthals survived in the various regions of Eurasia; (2) the identity the prehistoric cultures such as the chatelperronian, Aurignacian, Gravettian and others; and (3) whether prehistoric migrations or climatic changes were the main causes for the cultural changes. (Bar-Yosef, 2002) Other topics stated to be the object of current debates include: (1) whether the transition to the Upper Paleolithic was a major evolutionary event that was global or if it was gradual; (2) whether the drivers of change were biological or cultural, or even both; (3) whether Upper Paleolithic archaeological manifestations are the markers for the capacity for modern culture; and (5) the point in time at which the archaeological documents can be interpreted to indicate the emergence of modern behavior. (Bar-Yosef, 2002)

The Chatelperronian period is the period noted as one in which blade production is a phenomenon of a distinct nature and which marks the onset of the Upper Paleolithic period. However, the evolutionary evidence was later confirmed in that the detailed lithic analysis is reported to have "demonstrated its origin in the Late Mousterian of the Acheulian Tradition industry." (Bar-Yosef, 2002, p.374) Second, it is stated that Neanderthal remains discovered in a Chatelperronian layer at St. Cesaire proffered the hard evidenced needed "for biological continuity concurrent with cultural change within a single population." (Bar-Yosef, 2002, p.374)

Traits of the Upper Paleolithic period of the Chatelperronian include the "production of curved-backed blades, the presence of body decorations, and a bone tool assemblage" and all of these are reported as being "instructive." (Bar-Yosef, 2002, p.374) However two issues raised include: (1) the biological and cultural implications of the term transitional industry and the question of "when other entities in Europe and Africa are taken into account." (Bar-Yosef, 2002, p.374) Upper Paleolithic industries have been identified based on cultural attributes and are stated to be such that different populations may have produced. This means that the identification of the people who manufactured the lithic assemblages is dependent on discovery of human remains since the lack of human fossils makes the "correlation between the industries of specific biological populations" limited. (Bar-Yosef, 2002, p.374)

It is additionally reported that there is a "major ambiguity" due to the "mixture of lithic assemblage -- based definitions and chronological determination with what was probably a new social structure or a new landscape as represented by certain Upper Paleolithic entities." (Bar-Yosef, 2002) The Upper Paleolithic revolution is stated to have been very like to have started in "a core area and expanded by demic-diffucion, migration over long distances, and the transmission of technologies." (Bar-Yosef, 2002, p.372) Therefore, in some regions the Initial Upper Paleolithic assemblages are reported to have been earlier than in other regions with the spread of technology across Africa and Eurasia reported as being "debatable." (Bar-Yosef, 2002, p.372)

The view of the gradualist's school of thought is that regional continuities and environment adaptations were that driving the changes while other schools of thought "employ the molecular, nuclear genetic evidence as well as the currently available radiometric chronology to suggest that migration, contact, and accumulation determined the course of history around 45,000 to 30,000 years ago." (Bar-Yosef, 2002, p.372) Studies indicate that the Upper Paleolithic started earlier in the eastern Mediterranean and later in Western Europe with a similar time and geographic trajectory able to be drawn eastward across the central Asia region beyond the Caspian Sea and into northern Asia. (Bar-Yosef, 2002, paraphrased)

If one accepts the dated of Kara Bom, a site located in the Altai Mountains there are still issues that are unresolved in regards o the effect of site-formation processes in this locale and the shift to Upper Paleolithic happened much quicker in this area of Asia than in Europe. This would mean that the idea that the Aurignacian being the first Cro-Magnon culture would then be a false assumption. Questions also related to assemblages named as Aurignacian which are due to insufficient numbers of attributes since the definition of…

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