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The Library Springfield-Greene County Library District Springfield, Missouri
Art, History & Biography

Mysteries of Ancient Cave Artists Abound

Many paleolithic sites in southern Europe have cave walls covered with vibrant paintings. DNA tests shed new light on these prehistoric masterpieces of art.

These cave paintings often portray animals from the Pleistocene era, when humans would have hunted the big game animals. Some of the most famous sites are in southwestern France: Lascaux, Chauvet and Pech-Merle all have extensive murals of bison, mammoths, horses and even lions. The murals at Pech-Merle show attractive images of spotted horses. While the animals pictured have a striking vitality, archaeologists have long wondered if the images were more symbolic and imaginative than realistic. 

Recent research on the preserved DNA from the bones and teeth of horses that lived 7,000 to 20,000 years ago has revealed that most horses of the time were either black or bay (brown coat with a black mane and tail). However, new research in Berlin and the U.K. also found evidence for a spotted coat pattern called leopard: a white coat with a scattering of black spots. The marker for the leopard coat (LP) showed up in a third of the DNA samples. Yet today there are very few spotted horses with the LP gene. Further research indicates that if a horse has 2 copies of the LP gene, it would suffer from a form of night blindness, making them more prone to predation.

In a separate area of study, a recent story on National Public Radio discussed whether the cave paintings in Spain were even created by modern humans. Alistair Pike, a British scientist, says the dates of some of the paintings in Spain go back as far as 40,800 years ago. At that time modern humans had just recently arrived from Africa, so Pike's team has suggested that the cave paintings might have been done by Neanderthals, a separate species. Did modern humans arrive in Europe with paint and palettes in hand? Or did Neanderthals suddenly take to painting symbolic animals on cave walls?

A current "NOVA" special, "Decoding Neanderthals," reveals new findings about the re-creation of the Neanderthal genome. It includes which contemporary human populations still carry remnants of Neanderthal DNA.

The Library has many titles about the ancient cave paintings and early humans:


The cave of Altamira  by Antonio Beltran
Altamira in northern Spain, with its famous ceiling decorated with magnificent painted figures of bison, horses, deer, and wild cattle, is acknowledged as one of the great monuments of prehistoric art. 

 The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World's First Artists by Gregory Curtis
Curtis takes us through the major theories--that the art was part of fertility or hunting rituals, used for religious or shamanistic purposes, or formed a clan mythology. Rich in detail, the book explores how this art was created thousands of years ago by humans who had developed abstract thought and a profound and beautiful way to express it.

Chauvet Cave: The Art of Earliest Times by Jean Clottes
The book shows the cave in its setting, the floors and incursions into the cave by animals and people, a pictorial and descriptive account of the drawings, the various signs and symbols relating to humans and animals, and an anthropologist and art historian's view on the caves.

 Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans by Brian Fagan
The first fully modern Europeans competed with the Neanderthals for some 15,000 years. The Neanderthals were finally vanquished by the superior intellect and technology of the Cro-Magnons, which allowed them to thrive in the climate of the Ice Age. What do we know about this remarkable takeover? And what legacy did they leave behind them?

 The Molecule Hunt: Archeology and the Search for Ancient DNA by Martin Jones
Working at the cutting edge of genetic and molecular technologies, researchers have probed ancient DNA to rewrite our understanding of the past. Their discoveries have revised the human genealogical tree and answer such questions as: How different are we from the Neanderthals? What was life like for our ancestors?

Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind by Colin Renfrew
This book covers human existence before the advent of written records. It details how breakthroughs such as radiocarbon dating and DNA analysis have helped us to define humankind's past. Renfrew delivers a meticulously researched chronicle about our life on earth, and our ongoing quest to understand it. 

 Walking With Cavemen: Eye-to-Eye With Your Ancestors by John Lynch and Louise Barrett
How did our ancestors come to invent language, to shape the world with tools, to create art, and imagine the future? Follow your family tree all the way back to the first primate ancestors to stand on two legs.


Becoming Human: Unearthing Our Earliest Ancestors
by Nova/PBS
Where did we come from? What makes us human? NOVA's investigation explores how new discoveries are transforming views of our earliest ancestors.


 Cave of Forgotten Dreams  by Werner Herzog
Follows an exclusive expedition into the nearly inaccessible Chauvet Cave in France, home to the most ancient visual art known to have been created by man. It provides an unique glimpse of pristine artwork dating back to human hands over 30,000 years ago, almost twice as old as any previous discovery.

Clash of the Caveman
 by The History Channel
With up-to-the-minute realism based on cutting-edge research, this documentary brings to life the epic battle between Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons that determined the course of human history.  

Lascaux Revisited
 by Jacques Willemont
Lascaux Cave was closed to the public in 1963. The film shows almost the entire collection of prehistoric paintings and carvings in the cave.

 Search for the Ultimate Survivor: The Mystery of Us  by National Geographic
Through recreations and computer animation along with expedition footage, this DVD explores fascinating new discoveries, including a hobbit-sized human and an ancient super hominid, that help shed new light on the mysteries of our origins.

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