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Yet cave paintings are generally considered to be physical traces of early modern behaviour, because the creation of art requires abstract thought. ‘The reason we started to look at dating cave art was because we had this slight conundrum,’ says Alistair Pike, an archaeologist at the University of Southampton in the UK.
‘When we look at genetics, they suggest that modern humans become anatomically modern between 150,000 and 200,000 years ago in Africa.
‘Then you start to find the problems with it.’ Atmospheric carbon variations, including variability in the all-important carbon-14, left the method unreliable. that we could begin to correct for some of these variations in radiocarbon production,’ Walker says.
Although carbon dating is now more reliable, it has one major drawback: it only goes back 50,000 years, leaving most of human history outside its reach.
‘Most archaeologists would turn to radiocarbon dating …[but] if you haven’t got organic pigment in there, you can’t use radiocarbon and you’d be destroying the art, which is very valuable.