Category Archives: Gravettian

Grotte Chauvet’s Aurignacian dates strongly questioned

The famous rock art of the Cave of Lions (Grotte Chauvet, Ardèche) seems now not to be of such an early date as was claimed by Valladas et al. in 2001 but rather from the Gravettian and Solutrean periods, with more solid dates between 26,000 to 18,000 BP.
Jean Combier & Guy Jouve, New investigations into the cultural and stylistic identity of the Chauvet cave and its radiocarbon dating. L’Anthropologie 2014. Pay per view → LINK [doi:10.1016/j.anthro.2013.12.001]


The discovery of Chauvet cave, at Vallon-Pont-d’Arc (Ardèche), in 1994, was an important event for our knowledge of palaeolithic parietal art as a whole. Its painted and engraved figures, thanks to their number (425 graphic units), and their excellent state of preservation, provide a documentary thesaurus comparable to that of the greatest sites known, and far beyond what had already been found in the group of Rhône valley caves (Ardèche and Gard). But its study – when one places it in its natural regional, cultural and thematic framework – makes it impossible to see it as an isolated entity of astonishing precocity. This needs to be reconsidered, and the affinities that our research has brought to light are clearly incompatible with the very early age which has been attributed to it. And if one extends this examination to the whole of the Franco-Cantabrian domain, the conclusion is inescapable: although Chauvet cave displays some unique characteristics (like every decorated cave), it belongs to an evolved phase of parietal art that is far removed from the motifs of its origins (known from art on blocks and on shelter walls dated by stratigraphy to the Aurignacian, in France and Cantabrian Spain). The majority of its works are therefore to be placed, quite normally, within the framework of the well-defined artistic creations of the Gravettian and Solutrean. Moreover, this phase of the Middle Upper Palaeolithic (26,000–18,000) coincides with a particularly intensive and diversified local human occupation, unknown in earlier periods and far less dense afterwards in the Magdalenian. A detailed critique of the treatment of the samples subjected to AMS radiocarbon dating makes it impossible to retain the very early age (36,000 cal BP) attributed by some authors to the painted and engraved figures of Chauvet cave.


Askondo cave art is 25,000 years old

The rock art of Askondo cave (Mañaria, Biscay, Basque Country) has been dated to c. 25,000 years ago. The materials used for the artworks (red paint and engraving) cannot be dated directly but a bone fragment encrusted in the wall provided an age of c. 23,800 years BP (C14AMS) belonging therefore to the Gravettian period. 
The cave of Askondo (← aitz-ondo = near the rock) was believed to be a destroyed site but recent archaeological research has shown the opposite: that there is a lot to be researched in that cave, which has a surprising sedimentary depth of at least 6 m and that has already become, thanks to its artwork, in the third more important Paleolithic site of Biscay, after Santimamiñe and Arenaza caves.
Source: Bizkaia.Net.

Screw stoppers of Upper Paleolithic Dordogne

While not really a novelty, I bet that most readers have never heard of this (I had no idea myself admittedly). David Sánchez discusses this week at his (Spanish language) blog Noticias de Prehistoria – Prehistoria al Día the existence of several most intriguing conic screw pieces found in Gravettian and Magdalenian sites from Dordogne (Aquitaine, French Republic), a district that (because of its great density of findings and cultural centrality for Middle and Late UP European prehistory) I have sometimes dubbed the Paleolithic Metropolis of Europe.

Drawing of two ivory stoppers from Combe-Capelle and Fourneau du Diable
(from Don’s Maps, ultimately from S. Lwoff 1968)

Stopper of bone
from Laugerie-Haute
What are these magnificent pieces of Paleolithic craftsmanship? Apparently they are nothing else that that waterskin stoppers. Don’s Maps suggest (scroll down) that the waterskin’s neck hole would be made with a long bone hollow piece (just get out the marrow and tie it tightly to the skin’s neck with a couple of thin ropes after performing two grooves on the external surface of the bone piece), then just apply the screw stopper forcing the bone (which is hard but somewhat flexible) to adapt to it. Naturally the inner groove would be created as you repeat the process once and again, surely having to push a little more each time (the bone tends to expand somewhat under the internal pressure).
Why are they conical and not cylindrical like modern ones? Surely because the same stopper (hard high quality work) was expected to serve many different waterskins, with different neck sizes. Also the very process of creation of the neck’s perfect fit requires of an initial process of expansion for which a cylindrical stopper was not fit.
It never ceases to amaze the ingenuity and creativity of our Paleolithic ancestors, right?

Maps of lamp usage in Paleolithic SW Europe

Illustration by Arturo Asensio
Decorating Altamira Cave
As I have briefly mentioned before David Sánchez has a most interesting series of articles (in Spanish language) these days, at his blog Noticias de Prehistoria – Prehistoria al Día, dealing with the usage of oil lamps in SW Europe (France, Iberian Peninsula) in the Upper Paleolithic. If you are familiar with Spanish language (or willing to use an online translator), you can read them at the following links: PART 1, PART 2 and PART 3 (update: part 4 is now also online).
To be most synthetic I will essentially borrow the excellent maps which shall give us a glimpse of the spread and time frame of this illumination fashion in the region:

Lamps found in France with chronology and type of site (Beaune & White 1993)
Lamps found in Iberia (by David Sánchez)

It must be mentioned, following the original articles, that the lamps of Iberia have all been found inside caves (while in France the locations are more diverse) and also nearly all them belong to the Magdalenian period. The exceptions are Bolinkoba (8), which is from a Solutrean chronology, La Trinidad de Ardales (1), which has no context, and a possible ill-documented lamp from Lezetxiki (14), originally argued to be of either Aurignacian or Mousterian context. 
Even if you don’t understand Spanish, I would suggest to take a look at the original articles for the many illustrations of a varied array of lamps.

Paleolithic ceramic animal figurines of Croatia

One of the ceramic figurine fragments (C1)
While utilitarian pottery wares are now quite clearly determined to be a Chinese invention first of all (c. 20 Ka. ago), Europeans were toying with clay and cooking it even earlier, with terracotta art known to have existed in Dolní Věstonice and other places since the Gravettian period.
The site discussed in this new research is not as old but nevertheless it is interesting to mention because, as the authors say, it is becoming more and more clear that pottery was not a single punctual invention but that it was invented and maybe forgotten once and again in the course of human prehistory.
Rebecca Farbstein et al., First Epigravettian Ceramic Figurines from Europe (Vela Spila, Croatia). PLoS ONE 2012. Open access ··> LINK [DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0041437]
Vela Spila is just one of several Paleolithic sites with ceramic scattered through the geography of Europe and North Africa, as reflected in fig. 1:

The Croatian site’s ceramics begin only c. 17,350 years ago (cal.), even if the occupation of the site is some two millennia older, and continues until some 14,400 years ago, when a tephra layer from the second Campanian Ignibrite eruption seems to mark a major hiatus in human habitation (the cave was later repopulated in the Epipaleolithic, c. 7400 BCE).
The authors think that the Vela Spina figurines are similar to those from Pavlov and Dolní Věstonice in the creation process and most conceptual notions. However there are also some differences like stylized foots, lack of anthropomorphic figures and no direct correlation with hearths, as happens in Gravettian Moravia.

See also: University of Cambridge press release. Hat tip to Pileta.


A qualified opinion on the Eastern Gravettian

The always interesting Aggersbach’s Paleolithic Blog offers today an entry pondering the Eastern Gravettian and the so-called Willendorf-Kostenki complex. You probably want to read it in full but in any case I appreciate a pondered opinion on these matters, which may help us to understand better the overall process of the European Upper Paleolithic. 

Stone saws from Kostenki

My pick is:

In my view, the extremely rich archaeological record of the east
European plain clearly supports the two-stage concept of an eastern
Gravettian with occasional leaf point production, followed by a
Gravettian with (Micro)-Gravettes, backed microliths and shouldered
points (Mitoc Malu Galben in the Pruth valley; Molodova 5,
layers VIII and VII; Molodova 1, lower layer; Korman’ 4, layers VII and
VI; Voronovitsa 1, upper layer; and Babin I in the Dnester river basin, Khotylevo 2 in the Desna river basin).

Also mentioned, as the best approximation to a non-existing online paper in English about the Willendorf-Kostenki complex is an article at another fabulous and veteran site: Don’s Maps, from which I’m borrowing some illustrations to complement this entry.

Reconstructed Kostenki tent/home, one of those not built with mammoth bones

The Gravettian culture in Central Europe

Even if five years old, I have just stumbled (at Aggsbach’s Paleolithic Blog) on this very nice and extensive paper on the Gravettian of Central Europe, and it seems to me a must-read for anyone with some interest in Upper Paleolithic Europe or in general in the origins of Europeans.
Jiří A. Svoboda, The Gravettian on the Middle Danube. Paleo 2007. Freely accessible (in English and French). 

I’d say that the first sections are the most interesting ones, notably for the non-specialist reader. In them the author ponders the origin of Gravettian, concluding that it cannot be derived from early Upper Paleolithic cultures like Bohunician or Szeletian and that it must be instead an intrusive culture from West Asia (links to the older Ahmarian culture of the Levant). 
The Kozarnikian group of Bulgaria’s Kozarniki cave may signal the migration through the Balcans.
Once in Central Europe, the Early Gravettian or Pavlovian indicates discontinuity again by occupying different sites to those used by their predecessors, and also with different settlement tactics (large open air axial settlements in low altitudes and near rivers). Another difference is that burial then became a common feature, allowing us to find their remains much more easily (the famous “Crô-Magnon” type individuals).
The time-frame for this Pavlovian facies of Moravia and nearby areas of Austria and Poland is mostly 27-25 Ka BP (uncalibrated C14), with older dates only in Willendorf (Austria). A contemporary non-Pavlovian Early Gravettian site is Bodrogkeresztúr-Henye in East Hungary (c. 29-26 Ka BP).
The Early Gravettian is followed an Upper Gravettian of Central-East European scope (often described as Eastern Gravettian, as it extends into Eastern Europe). The author calls it Willendorfian-Kostenkian. 
Finally an Epigravettian exists after c. 20 Ka BP, however Svoboda considers that this is a misnomer and more proper for the Mediterranean variants, which are more congruent with classical Gravettian typology, and proposes the name of Kasovian (on an Ukrainian site with a good stratigraphy for this period). This Kasovian would be in fact an hybrid of Gravettian and Aurignacian influences and begs for a comparison with the Badegoulian culture of Western Europe, sometimes considered the precursor of Magdalenian.
The latter sections deal with landscape and burials.