How wielding lamps and torches shed new mild on Stone Age cave artwork


As a geologist who research Stone Age cave artwork, Iñaki Intxaurbe is used to creating subterranean treks in a headlamp and boots. However the first time he navigated a cave the best way people 1000’s of years in the past would have — barefoot whereas holding a torch — he discovered two issues. “The primary sensation is that the bottom may be very moist and chilly,” says Intxaurbe, of the College of the Basque Nation in Leioa, Spain. The second: If one thing chases you, it is going to be arduous to run. “You aren’t going to see what’s in entrance of you,” he says.

Torches are simply one in every of a number of mild sources Stone Age artists used to navigate caves. Intxaurbe and colleagues are wielding these fiery instruments in darkish, damp and sometimes cramped caves in an effort to know how and why people journeyed beneath the earth and why they created artwork there (SN: 11/7/18).

Within the vast chambers and slender passageways of Isuntza I Cave within the Basque area of Spain, the researchers examined torches, stone lamps and fireplaces — nooks in cave partitions. Juniper branches, animal fats and different supplies that Stone Age people would have had at hand fueled the sunshine sources. The group measured flame depth and length, in addition to how distant from the supply mild illuminated the partitions.

A researcher (proper) lights a stone lamp pooled with animal fats. The lamp (proven at numerous phases of burning, left) gives a gentle, smokeless mild supply that may final for greater than an hour — preferrred for staying in a single spot in a cave.M.A. Medina-Alcaide et al/PLOS ONE 2021

Every mild supply comes with its personal quirks that make it nicely suited to particular cave areas and duties, the group experiences June 16 in PLOS ONE. Stone Age people would have managed hearth in various methods to journey by way of caves and make and think about artwork, the researchers say.Torches work finest on the transfer, as their flames want movement to remain lit and produce numerous smoke. Although torches forged a large glow, they burn for a mean of simply 41 minutes, the group discovered. That means a number of torches would have been wanted to journey by way of caves. Concave stone lamps full of animal fats, however, are smokeless and might supply greater than an hour of centered, candlelike mild. That will have made it straightforward to remain in a single spot for some time. And whereas fireplaces produce numerous mild, they’ll additionally produce numerous smoke. That sort of sunshine supply is finest fitted to giant areas that get loads of airflow, the researchers say. 

For Intxaurbe, the experiments confirmed what he has seen himself at Atxurra collapse northern Spain. In a slender Atxurra passageway, Paleolithic folks had used stone lamps. However close to excessive ceilings the place smoke can rise, they left indicators of fireplaces and torches. “They have been very clever. They use the higher selection for various situations,” he says.

Geologist Iñaki Intxaurbe data observations of Axturra collapse northern Spain. A simulation of fireside mild in Axturra revealed new particulars about how Stone Age folks could have made and seen artwork within the cave.Earlier than Artwork Undertaking

Whereas the findings reveal lots about how Stone Age folks used mild to navigate caves, additionally they make clear 12,500-year-old artwork that Intxaurbe helped uncover deep within the Atxurra collapse 2015. Stone Age artists painted about 50 pictures of horses, goats and bison on a wall accessible solely by climbing up a roughly 7-meter-tall ledge. “The work are in a quite common cave, however in very unusual locations of the cave,” Intxaurbe says. Which will partly clarify why earlier explorers had failed to note the artwork.

A scarcity of the best lighting additionally performed an element, Intxaurbe and colleagues say. By simulating how torches, lamps and fireplaces lit up a digital 3-D mannequin of Atxurra, the group noticed the cave’s artwork with recent eyes. Utilizing only a torch or a lamp from beneath, the work and engravings keep hidden. However lit fireplaces on the ledge illuminate the entire gallery in order that anybody on the cave ground can see it. That means the artists could have needed to maintain their work hidden, the researchers say.

Cave artwork wouldn’t exist with out harnessing hearth. So to unravel the mysteries of subterranean studios, it’s key to know how prehistoric artists lit their environment. “Answering the small questions in an correct method,” Intxaurbe says, is a path towards answering a major query about Stone Age folks, “why they painted these items.”


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