Image: Crew of cavemen painters
Corbis
This diaroma shows what a crew of cavemen painters may have looked like. Both of the caves examined in this study feature art on the walls, some of which shows cave bears.
By
updated 4/26/2011 1:07:28 PM ET 2011-04-26T17:07:28

Cavemen may have had to jostle with bears to settle into caves up to 32,000 years ago, as research shows cave bears lived in the same spaces coveted by prehistoric humans.

The new study on cave bears, which has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Archaeological Science, may also shed light on the age of cave art depicting these enormous animals and why the bears eventually went extinct.

A clue to the mysteries is that from 32,000 to 30,000 years ago, both humans and cave bears lived in two French caves, creating a likely man-versus-bear battle.

"Paleolithic humans used to kill large animals during their hunts, so they were able to kill cave bears," lead author Celine Bon told Discovery News.

While genetics show cave bears consumed a mostly vegetarian diet, "they might have been violent if they were disturbed during hibernation or if they felt frightened," added Bon, a researcher in the Institute of Biology and Technology at Saclay, France.

"In such a case, they may have been very dangerous because of their huge size and their impressive claws and canines (teeth)."

For the study, Bon and her colleagues performed radiocarbon dating, mitochondrial DNA analysis and isotope investigations of cave bear remains from Chauvet-Pont d'Arc and Deux-Ouvertures caves located along the Ardeche River in France. Both caves feature art on the walls, some of which shows cave bears.

The tests revealed that cave bears inhabited the Ardeche region from around 37,000 to 27,400 years ago, with the oldest samples from Chauvet dating to 29,000 years ago. For a while, the bears had few rivals for the caves

That changed when humans first began to use the natural shelters 32,000 to 30,000 years ago. The DNA analysis determined the cave bear population was small and isolated, and that the bears probably died out not long after humans came onto the scene.

"The cave bear population began to decline at the same time that modern humans arrived in Europe," Bon said. "Yet it is unclear if humans are responsible for the cave bear extinction because of competition over space or food resources, or if the extinction of cave bears is due to climatic and/or environmental changes.

"Our data favor both explanations because they show a small cave bear population size in caves occupied by humans."

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She thinks it's doubtful the bears and humans ever lived together simultaneously in the caves. Despite the probable competition, there appears to have been a period where the bears occupied the caves during the winter while the humans took over the caves in the summer. There also might have been intervals lasting several years between cave occupations by either group.

Since the oldest cave bear remains from the Chauvet cave date to 29,000 years ago, that supports prior claims that the charcoal drawings there are the oldest in the world.

In the journal paper, the authors explain: "Because painting an animal that is no longer present is hardly feasible, we propose that these red rock art pictures are indeed very ancient, dating back to the Aurignacian (a period lasting from 40,000 to 28,000 years ago)."

Archaeologist Jean-Michel Geneste, who is director of France's National Center for Prehistory, told Discovery News said the "results are important for the interpretation of the Aurignacian paintings."

Andrew Lawson, an archaeologist based in Salisbury, U.K., also supports the new findings. But Paul Pettitt of the University of Sheffield is skeptical that the Chauvet paintings are so ancient.

Pettitt believes their style is too advanced for the date given, likening them to a Renaissance painting found in a Roman villa. He further questions if the bears in the drawings are cave bears or brown bears, but Bon's team say the skull shapes for each species are unique.

Bon and her colleagues hope future studies will put a more firm date on when cave bears went extinct. The researchers also call for analysis of charcoal fragments spotted in the Chauvet cave places containing the cave bear remains.

© 2012 Discovery Channel

Explainer: Ancient rock art from around the world

  • AP

    Even 15,000 years ago, humans were compelled to decorate the interior walls of their abodes. Back then, in the Stone Age, home was often no more than a cave, but the artwork was sophisticated and sublime. The Altamira Cave in northern Spain contains some of Europe's best known and best preserved Paleolithic rock art, including the painted ceiling shown here. Scholars consider the paintings, primarily of bison and other wildlife, masterpieces of creative genius. Click the "Next" label to see seven more examples of rock art from around the world.

    — By John Roach, msnbc.com contributor

  • Lascaux cave drawings threatened by fungus

    Pierre Andrieu  /  AP

    The famed Lascaux caves in France have been shuttered since 1963, when green algae and mosses began to cover the 15,000- to 17,000 year-old murals of bulls, horses, and other creatures. The deterioration was blamed on chemical reactions with visitors' breath. As a consolation, the government built a replica cavern nearby, which remains a top tourist draw. But the spread of fungus in the original cave hasn't stopped, thanks in part to global warming, researchers said at a recent meeting about the artwork. Ideas to fight the fungus include the use of biocides and an elaborate climate control system.

  • Uranium traces help date oldest rock art in Britain

    Sergio Ripoli

    Rock art in Britain appears to date back at least 12,800 years, according to scientists who used minute traces of radioactive uranium in a limestone crust to date the rock art. The crusts formed over the etchings of bison and other creatures, so the dates set a minimum age for the work. The finding helps round out a picture of Ice Age Ice-Age hunter-gatherers occupying the caves each spring to find horse, reindeer, and other wildlife for meat, hides, and fur. This overdrawn image here shows a stag engraving in the biggest cavern at Creswell Crags.

  • Earliest oil paintings in Afghan cave

    National Research Institute for

    The world's earliest known oil paintings are found in a series of intact - albeit weather-beaten and looter-ravaged - caves in Afghanistan's Bamiyan Valley. Archaeologists dated the paintings to the mid-seventh century, which is several hundred years before the painting technique emerged in Europe. The murals depict Buddhas and mythical creatures and were made with what appear to be walnut and poppy-seed oils, scientists say. The site of the paintings is perhaps more infamously known as where the Taliban blew up two giant stone Buddha statues in 2001.

  • South African rock reveals history of the San

    Image: Aerial view of Nyirangongo
    Alexander Joe  /  AFP/Getty Images

    Painted walls and overhangs in South Africa are helping scholars piece together the millennia-long history of the San, a group of hunter-gatherers who became extinct after European colonization in the 19th century. More than 40,000 paintings in 500 rock shelters have been discovered. They depict animals such as the eland - a type of spiral-horned antelope - and hunters and are thought to represent religious beliefs of the San. Researchers hope that by firmly dating the paintings, they can see how the people changed over time.

  • Rock depicts supernova

    John Barentine  /  Apache Point Observatory

    The star symbol right of center in this rock carving may represent the fiery death of an ancient star in the year 1006. If so, it would be the first North American representation of a celestial event, previously known from astronomers' records in Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. The supernova of 1006 was likely as bright as the quarter moon, according to computer simulations. This piece of rock art was discovered in the White Tank Regional Park outside of Phoenix, Ariz.

  • Rock art under siege in Nevada

    Debra Reid  /  AP File

    Figures and shapes etched into rocks all around Nevada hint at stories of people who roamed the land centuries to millennia ago. But rock art enthusiasts fear vandals and looters will destroy the etchings before scientists have sufficient tools and knowledge to comprehend the historical record. The problem, according to groups mobilizing to protect the ancient artwork, is Nevada's rapid growth, which is putting people much closer to sites such as the petroglyphs shown here in the Pah Rah Mountain Range near Reno.

  • Gas caught between rock and an art place

    Douglas C. Pizac  /  AP

    The more than 10,000 carvings and paintings of bulls, sheep, hunters, the hunted, warriors and wildlife all etched and stroked onto the cliff walls along Utah's Nine Mile Canyon make up what is known as the world's longest art gallery. The rock art dates to between A.D. 700 and 1300 and archaeologists believe it is the creation of the Fremont people, who were the ancestors of modern-day Utes. But the rock isn't the only draw to the remote stretch of Utah: It's also rich in oil and gas. A rush to exploit the natural resources has raised concerns that dust kicked up by industrial truck traffic could harm the artwork.

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