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Ancient Rock Art Transmitted Information Across 100 Generations

Ancient rock art in Argentinian cave
Ancient rock art in an Argentinian cave. Credit: G.R.V. / Science Advances / CC BY 4.0

New research published in the journal Science Advances unveils surprising findings about ancient rock art in Argentina. Previously estimated to be just a few thousand years old, this collection of drawings found in a Patagonian cave is much older than believed.

Archaeologists originally thought the artwork, located in South America’s southern tip, dated back only a few thousand years. However, recent analysis reveals that some of these drawings are as old as 8,200 years, originating from the late Holocene epoch, which began around 11,700 years ago.

This means that the artwork inside the cave spans over 100 generations, offering a glimpse into the ancient past of this region, as reported by Live Science.

“It turned out to be several millennia older than we expected,” said Guadalupe Romero Villanueva, the lead author of the study and an archaeologist with the Argentine National Research Council (CONICET) and the National Institute of Anthropology and Latin American Thought (INAPL).

Use of radiocarbon dating to determine age of cave art

Archaeologists carefully extracted small fragments of black pigment from the drawings to determine the age of the extensive artwork, including depictions of humans, animals, and various designs.

Since the pigment was derived from plant materials, researchers utilized radiocarbon dating techniques to determine the age of the cave art.

“It’s usually really hard to date rock art unless it has an organic component,” study co-author Ramiro Barberena, an archeologist at Temuco Catholic University in Chile and CONICET, told Live Science. “Otherwise there really isn’t any material that you can date.”

“[The cave] is not the oldest occupation in South America, but it is the oldest directly radiocarbon-dated pigment-based rock art in South America,” Barberena said.

Total of 895 paintings identified from cave site

Archaeologists identified a total of 895 distinct paintings in the entire cave complex, which they grouped into 446 motifs or segments.

Although researchers are still uncertain about the specific cultures responsible for these striking images, they speculate that the intricate artwork might have served as a means of communication between the creators and neighboring communities. It could have also been a way to pass down knowledge to future generations.

These drawings cover approximately 3,000 years within a single motif, according to Barberena. The archaeologist further explained that, according to the hypothesis, there was a continuous transmission of information over many generations of people who lived in the same area and site.

Barberena added that although it’s unclear whether the cave art was produced for a specific ceremony or intergroup gathering, researchers believe it played a role as a strategy for humans to establish social connections among interspersed groups.

This, in turn, likely enhanced the resilience of these societies in coping with the demanding environment they inhabited.

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