Absolute Dating of Cave Art

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Science  15 Jun 2012:
Vol. 336, Issue 6087, pp. 1387-1388
DOI: 10.1126/science.1224185

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Paleolithic cave art is one of the most striking visual reminders of tens of millennia of human prehistory. Found throughout the world, it is fundamental for understanding the earliest human culture and artistic endeavor. Yet, despite great advances in dating technologies, it remains extremely difficult to determine the age of a thin layer of pigment on a cave or rock shelter wall. Researchers are often limited to reconstructing relative chronology by comparing drawing styles and, where available, creating sometimes tenuous links to other dated human remains or artifacts (1, 2). Mass-spectrometric radiocarbon dating has arguably been the most successful technique for dating cave art, in the rare cases where it is possible to directly date charcoal or other pigments containing carbon (2). On page 1409 of this issue, Pike et al. report an ambitious study of paleolithic cave art sites from Spain in which they have applied the previously under used uranium-thorium (U-Th) dating method (3).