We should gene-sequence cave paintings to find out more about who made them

MIT Technology Review | 2/14/2019 | Staff
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Some of the great wonders of the artistic world are the cave paintings in southern Europe, particularly in eastern Spain. This rock art is thought to have been created between 5,000 and 8,000 years ago, when human societies were making the transition from hunter-gatherer to farming communities.

Despite much study, the origin of these artworks is shrouded in mystery. Nobody is quite sure what the artists used for paint or binder, how the pigmentation has been preserved for so long, and—most controversial of all—exactly when the images were made. In particular, archaeologists would dearly love to know whether the images date from the Neolithic period, before the transition to farming, or the Mesolithic period, when the transition had already begun.

Today - Insight - Question - Work - Clodoaldo

Today we get a unique insight into this question thanks to the work of Clodoaldo Roldán at the University of Valencia in Spain and colleagues, who study prehistoric Spanish Levantine rock art. This team has carried out the first genomic analysis of the bacterial communities that flourish on the rock art and of the pigment and binders that make up the images. And their work offers vital clues to to the way the work must have been created and preserved.

Eastern Spain has over 700 sites of prehistoric rock art, collectively known as Levantine art. The images are thought to be the most advanced from this period and generally depict small human figures and animals.

Way - Date - Ancient - Artifacts - Carbon

One way to date ancient artifacts is with carbon dating. But this works only with pigments that have a biological origin, and with the exception of black, most of them do not. That’s one reason there is widespread disagreement over dates.

Roldán and co take an entirely different approach. They used a sterile scalpel to take tiny scrapings from the surface of the art. These samples include some pigment, its...
(Excerpt) Read more at: MIT Technology Review
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