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J Hum Evol. 2008 Nov;55(5):908-17. doi: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2008.04.003. Epub 2008 Aug 3.

Art and the Middle-to-Upper Paleolithic transition in Europe: comments on the archaeological arguments for an early Upper Paleolithic antiquity of the Grotte Chauvet art.

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Department of Archaeology, University of Sheffield, Northgate House, West Street, Sheffield S1 4ET, United Kingdom.


The spectacular art of the Grotte Chauvet stands out among all other examples of Aurignacian art, which are restricted to a handful of sites in other regions of western and Central Europe, which take the form of sophisticated carvings on organic materials and of simple engravings on rockshelter walls. Given its sophistication, Chauvet has understandably come to feature prominently in debates as to the nature of human symbolic origins, the behavioral capacities of Homo sapiens, the nature of the dispersal of modern humans across Europe, and the possibly contemporary extinction of Homo neanderthalensis. Significant objections to such an antiquity have, however, been made in recent years on the grounds of the style, themes, and technical practice of the art itself, and on the grounds of the AMS radiocarbon dating program that was first seen to suggest an early Upper Paleolithic age. To date, no attention has been paid to claims for an Aurignacian age on specifically archaeological grounds. Here, I undertake a critical examination of the archaeology of the cave and its wider region, as well as attempts to verify the antiquity of the art on the basis of comparison with well-dated Aurignacian art elsewhere. I conclude that none of the archaeological arguments withstand scrutiny and that many can be rejected as they are either incorrect or tautologous. By contrast, hypotheses that the art is of Gravettian-Magdalenian age have not been successfully eliminated. The age of the art of the Grotte Chauvet should be seen as a scientific problem, not an established fact. While it may prove impossible to prove an Aurignacian age for some of the Chauvet art I suggest a set of expectations that would, in combination, strengthen the robusticity of the 'long chronology' argument. The onus is upon Chauvet long chronologists to do this, and until they do, we must conclude that the art of the Grotte Chauvet is not dated, and very possibly much younger than claimed.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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