Ice Age Artists Used Charcoal Over 10,000 Years to Create Europe's Oldest Cave Paintings

C. Fritz/MC
C. Fritz/MC

Tiny bits of charcoal found in a cave in France are providing new clues into how our prehistoric ancestors lived some 35,000 years ago.

The samples were taken from the Chauvet Pont d'Arc Cave in southern France, whose wall paintings are the oldest in Europe and among the oldest in the world. Few people have ever been inside the cave, which was discovered only in 1994 and remains one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time—but some might recognize it from Werner Herzog's award-winning documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

The results of the charcoal analysis, published today in the April issue of the journal Antiquity, enabled researchers to paint a picture of how humans created art in the Ice Age, as well as the bitter climactic conditions of that time.

Researchers collected 171 samples of charcoal from hearths and torch marks in the cave. Other bits of charcoal were found directly beneath the animal paintings, which have been preserved in incredible detail after being sealed off by a rockfall thousands of years ago.

A drawing of rhinos inside the Chauvet cave
C. Fritz/MC

The analysis revealed that all but one of the charcoal samples came from burnt pine trees; the remaining one came from buckthorn. That doesn't sound all that impressive until you consider that some of these drawings were created nearly 10,000 years apart, during two different Ice Age periods. Put differently, for millennia, humans chose to use the same material for the sole purpose of creating art.

Researchers concluded that while other types of wood could have been used, the artists who created these cave paintings continued to choose pine, likely due to the availability of fallen branches as well as its combustion properties. But more remarkably, researchers believe these early artists selected it because it was the perfect medium for their art, ideal "for the smudging and blending techniques used in cave paintings," according to the study.

Over the years, the paintings have been praised for their artistic merit and use of motion. As Herzog commented in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, one artist's rendering of a bison with eight legs suggested movement—"almost a form of proto-cinema."

These findings also reveal what the climate was like during that time, and it was anything but balmy. The researchers write:

"Pine is a pioneer taxon [group] with an affinity for mountainous environments and survived in refuges during the coldest periods of the last ice age. As such, it attests, first and foremost, to the harsh climatic conditions that prevailed during the various occupations of the cave."

To preserve the cave paintings, only researchers are allowed inside the Chauvet Cave. However, a replica of the cave was built in France's Ardèche region and remains open to tourists.

After 110 Million Years, This Spider Fossil's Eyes Are All Aglow

© Changkun Park, Electron Probe Micro Analyzer, Korea Polar Research Institute
© Changkun Park, Electron Probe Micro Analyzer, Korea Polar Research Institute

A big, hairy spider is enough to give anyone a fright. So you can imagine what a set of eight glowing eyes attached to a body like that might do to an arachnophobe's psyche. One such spider was discovered recently by researchers, but don’t worry—the iridescent-eyed arachnid has been dead for 110 million years.

As Popular Science reports, this rare, fossilized specimen was found in South Korea’s Lower Cretaceous Jinju Formation. The find was unusual for a couple of reasons. For one, spiders are not usually preserved in rock because the soft-bodied creatures decay easily. It’s also not every day that you see a long-dead spider with glowing eyes. On top of that, researchers found two well-preserved examples of these spiders, which were described in a recent issue of the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology.

Both specimens belong to Lagonomegopidae, an extinct family that predated jumping spiders. The glow is caused by a layer of tissue called tapetum lucidum, which coats the spider’s eyes and reflects light, allowing the spider to hunt at night with ease. Many animals have it—including cats, dogs, horses, deer, raccoons, and some modern spiders—but this is the first paper to describe its existence in a fossilized spider. The tapetum is crescent-shaped and “looks a bit like a Canadian canoe,” according to Paul Selden, a geology professor at the University of Kansas and co-author of the paper.

“Because these spiders were preserved in strange silvery flecks on dark rock, what was immediately obvious was their rather large eyes brightly marked with crescentic features,” Selden said in a statement.

The fossilized spider
Paul Selden

Researchers now want to go back and take another look at similar spiders preserved in amber, which are far more common than spiders fossilized in rock. The challenge is determining whether those specimens also have a layer of tapetum lucidum coating their eyes.

“Amber fossils are beautiful, they look wonderful, but they preserve things in a different way,” Selden said. “Now, we want to go back and look at the amber fossils and see if we can find the tapetum, which stares out at you from rock fossils but isn’t so obvious in amber ones because the mode of preservation is so different.”

[h/t Popular Science]

A (Still-Sharp) Medieval Sword Was Pulled from a Sewer in Denmark

Pipe layer Jannick Vestergaard and engineer Henning Nøhr hold up the sword they found.
Pipe layer Jannick Vestergaard and engineer Henning Nøhr hold up the sword they found.
Nordjyllands Historiske Museum (Historical Museum of Northern Jutland)

If the legend of King Arthur and Excalibur is anything to go by, anyone who successfully extracts a sword in a stone will be treated like royalty. The fable doesn’t say anything about the reward one gets for removing a medieval weapon from feces, though.

As Smithsonian reports, a pipe layer and an engineer recently found a sword from the medieval era while doing construction work on a sewer in Aalborg, Denmark’s fourth-largest city. The relic was plucked from a layer of waste that had accumulated atop an old slab of pavement that once ran through the city.

Most remarkably, the sword was still intact—and the blade still sharp. It’s about 3.5 feet long and of extremely high quality, according to archaeologists. The sword may have been used between 1100 and 1400, but the likeliest explanation is that it got separated from its owner sometime in the 14th century. “Findings from here have always pointed to the 1300s, so the sword must have ended up in the earth in this century,” archaeologist Kenneth Nielsen said in a translated statement.

The sword next to a tape measure
Nordjyllands Historiske Museum (Historical Museum of Northern Jutland)

It’s rare for such an important historical artifact to turn up in such an unlikely—and unhygienic—place. Swords were valuable and highly prized possessions, and they were treated as such. They were typically buried with their owners, but no graves are situated above the sewer where the weapon was found.

The country’s history offers some clues about what may have transpired, though. In the 1300s, power struggles and internecine war were common throughout Denmark. “The best explanation we can come up with is that the owner of the sword was defeated in a battle,” Nielsen told The Local Denmark. “In the tumult, it was then trod down into the layer of mud that formed the street back then.”

Similarly, a 14th-century sword was found in a Polish peat bog in 2017, and archaeologists suspect the owner either sunk into the marsh and met a grisly end, or merely dropped his weapon and was unable to retrieve it.

While these questions will likely remain unanswered, members of the public will have the chance to admire the Danish "sewer sword" in all its glory at the Aalborg Historiske Museum (Aalborg Historical Museum), which is located near the site where the sword was found. Fortunately for future visitors, it will be cleaned and preserved first.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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