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Though originally a field reserved for archaeologists, physical scientists like Walker are showing that they also have crucial contributions to make.
Since only uranium, and not thorium, is present at sample formation, comparing the two ratios can be used to calculate the time passed since the sample formed. Pike’s team are not actually dating the painting itself, but small calcite growths on top of it.
‘Uranium dating has been enormously important,’ he underlines.
Like we recognise art as quintessentially human, we also consider tool use and technological progress to be defining for our species, and it was as important to ancient humans as it is to us.
‘We’re kind of at the mercy of geochemistry.’Pike’s team used this method to give a minimum date to red hand stencils found in a cave in northern Spain called El Castillo, which contains the oldest known cave art in the world. This is long after humans were supposed to become anatomically modern, adding to the evidence suggesting that early anatomically modern humans didn’t necessarily act modern. Anatomically modern humans arrived in northern Spain around 42,000 to 43,000 years ago, and Neanderthals died out between 39,000 and 41,000 years ago.
But because the stencil date is a minimum age, there’s a chance the Neanderthals could have been the artists.
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So how do we investigate the development of human evolution if it’s outside the radiocarbon timescale?