Obviously the new owner of these little paintings is a musician. I’m honored to echo his array.
Celebrating the centennial of women gaining the right to vote in Oregon, Portland’s big public mansion on the hill will hold an exhibit—including three of my paintings—from July 14 to November 11. If you’ve never entered this unique house, learned the story of the pioneers who built it, or seen its serious vista of Portland and the surrounding mountains, do stop by. For the next few months we’ll get to see some compelling meditations on feminism on the walls, too.
Pittock Mansion, 3229 NW Pittock Drive, Portland
What comes along with declaring something “the oldest”? Looking at the photo published here, how does your reception of the image change when I say my nephew made these hand prints, that I made them with Photoshop, or they are the oldest paintings in Europe, perhaps created by a species not our own? The layers of description we attach to objects of visual craft can make them appear more or less beautiful, valuable and important—and those narratives tend to evolve.
A study published in the journal Science this past week has a lot of people talking about cave paintings. As reported by National Public Radio, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor and other news sources, a group of scientists has been reexamining cave paintings in Spain, and they’ve concluded that many of the paintings are older—tens of thousands of years older—than they thought previously. This has led to some big narrative revisions.
On Friday the Monitor published a lead typical of the reportage: “New tests show that crude Spanish cave paintings of a red sphere and handprints are the oldest in the world, so ancient they may not have been by modern man.” That is, new numbers from a new technique for dating these cave paintings have led some to believe it’s possible they were done by Neanderthals, not humans. And that means Neanderthals were more human than we thought, capable of symbolic, aesthetic expression, maybe able to use language like modern humans do. Or the discovery means none of these things, but it’s really fun to attach new stories to old objects.
The actual study, titled, “U-Series Dating of Paleolithic Are in 11 Caves in Spain,” gives authorial credit to eleven researchers, led by Alistair Pike from the University of Bristol. In a phone interview on NPR’s Science Friday, he explained that carbon dating of organic materials used in paint becomes inaccurate when testing things more than 30,000 years old, and since some Paleolithic painters and engravers didn’t use ground-up plant or animal matter to make their pictures, often there is no carbon to date. So his team used a method based on the predictable rate at which uranium decays to thorium. Testing trace amounts of uranium in layers of calcite deposit that slowly grow over paintings in caves allows the team to come up with a minimum age for the paintings. If a layer over a painting is 40,000 years old, then the painting must have been put on the wall more than 40,000 years ago. The “oldest known” painting the team has found so far is a red splotch among some hand prints put on a cave wall in Spain at least 40,800 years ago.
Pike said he believes there’s a “strong probability” Neanderthals did that painting because other research has concluded that the earliest humans arrived in that area about 41,500 years ago. That date and the earliest cave painting date are precariously close together, and if the team can revise the dates on other paintings, finding even older examples of “enigmatic symbols” on walls, that would mean some nonhuman put them there. At that time Neanderthals had occupied the southern peninsulas of Europe for at least 200,000 years. This is really provocative stuff in a scholarly world that intensely debates whether Neanderthals could do much of anything creative, such as invent new tools, make music, speak or stitch complicated clothing. If Pike’s team is right, our ideas about Neanderthals will change forever. Human people wouldn’t be the only people who made art.
I find all of this fun to reconsider. Pike and his team are saying a lot with this research, but only the first part of their media message seems scientific to me. The rest is pure, beautiful storytelling. They’re trumpeting what they consider to be a superior method for measuring the age of ancient cave paintings. That’s exactly what good research should do. It uses specific, carefully collected evidence to draw modest conclusions. When those conclusions shift our ideas about what came first or from whom, then certain real-world consequences follow. In this case research takes away the label of “oldest known” from the highly detailed, figurative animal pictures in Chauvet cave, France, and plants it on a red splotch in Spain—for now. (Who knows where that label will land when they’ve completed their research on the thousands of paintings yet to be uranium dated.) Will this shift tourism a little? Maybe enhance Spain’s reputation as a place to invest in archeology? Will international attention mean money flows differently in other ways? Spain could use the help these days.
Along with that good work, though, Pike’s group of scientists is telling a speculative story about what it means based on a double standard: They say their work means it’s likely Neanderthals made these pictures. On one hand, Pike et al. are revising a number: The “oldest known” cave paintings are no longer 35,000 years old; they’re 40,800 years old. On the other hand they’re holding tight to a number that others see as suspect: The first time humans set foot in Spain was 41,500 years ago according to Pike’s group. That number comes from a questionable set of cross-referenced sources: some tools attributed to Paleolithic people and rare discoveries of bones. However, I recently read a study published last year in the journal Nature that estimates human arrival in Europe took place at least a couple thousand years earlier. Who is right? With better methods for dating the evidence or new discoveries, will Pike et al.’s date of arrival look way off?
Their work has already been directly questioned by colleagues on other grounds. In the NPR story linked above, archeologist Pat Shipman said she wonders why Neanderthals, who had been in Europe for hundreds of thousands of years, all of a sudden started making art at the same time as humans arrived. She finds it more likely humans brought artistic practice with them from Africa.
A red splotch in a cave tells us about ourselves mainly what we tell ourselves about it. Crouching underground, faced with the “oldest known,” it seems even professionals can’t help letting their imaginations chew on a red splotch and digest it into something earth-shattering. Does a red splotch in its essence shine through all those layers of story and calcite? What does this tell us about our relationship to the more quotidian pictures we see? What layers of description turn a good drawing bad? What caption makes a dull photo compelling—or a gripping painting into a lie?