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Fumane Cave Paintings

Oldest art in Italy: 34,500 BC
Neanderthal jewellery: 45,600 BC

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Oldest Art in Italy

The Fumane Cave ("Grotta di Fumane") in the province of Verona, is home to a collection of important paleolithic art, which constitutes the oldest art in Italy.

In 1999, archaeologists found a number of cave paintings on slabs of rock which had fallen from the roof of the underground chamber. These decorated slabs were indirectly dated to 34,500 BC.

This rock art - which includes red and yellow ochre images of animals, and what appears to be a half-human, half-animal figure - is among the oldest prehistoric art of its type in Europe.

Chronologically, Fumane's figurative art was created about the same time as the first paintings at Chauvet Cave (34,500 BC) in the Dordogne, the Baume-Latrone (35,500 BC) in Occitanie, and the abstract signs at Altamira Cave in northern Spain.

Location & Archaeology

Discovered in 1964 by archaeologist Giovanni Solinas, the Fumane Cave sits in the Lessini Hills about 15 km northwest of Verona.

Although it was examined immediately by the Natural History Museum of Verona, it was only in 1988 that a proper excavation took place.

This excavation uncovered a sequence of human occupation of the cave spanning the Mousterian, Aurignacian and Gravettian cultures of the Middle and Upper Paleolithic.

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Neanderthals occupied the cave from 60,000 to about 38,000 BC, during the Mousterian and early Aurignacian periods.

Thousands of flint flakes and cores, bones, charcoal, bone retouchers and hammerstones indicate that they lit fires, made stone tools, slaughtered and skinned large animals, and even birds, and processed leather hides and fur pelts.

Neanderthals were followed by modern humans, who occupied the cave until the mid-Gravettian period, around 23,000 BC.

With the change of occupant came an abrupt change in culture and lifestyle. New tools appeared, as did cave art and personal ornaments.

Alberto Broglio, the paleontology scholar who coordinated the excavation of Fumane Cave, explained that there was a clean break between Neanderthal and modern humans, both in their culture and lifestyle.

This is in line with recent archaeogenetics evidence that H. neanderthalensis was not related to H. sapiens.

This long sequence of human habitation, with its rich collection of artifacts and art which reveals the lifestyle of both Neanderthals and modern man, is the reason why Fumane Cave is considered one of the most important Aurignacian sites in Europe.

Archaeology at Fumane

For a short guide to archaeological digs, see: Archaeology: Prehistoric & Ancient.

For other important sites of Italian Paleolithic art, see: Venus of Savignano (26,000 BC), the Grimaldi Venuses (25,000 BC) and the engravings in the Addaura Caves (10,000 BC).

Fumane Cave Paintings

In 1999, following a series of excavations, beginning in 1988, researchers came across numerous examples of cave painting buried under layers of debris.

The pictures were painted on slabs that had broken off the cave ceiling.

Measuring about 30-70cm in length, they include an image of a creature with an elongated neck (perhaps a weasel, as in the Niaux Cave), a strange five-legged animal, and a figure of a man - thought to be a shaman - wearing a mask with horns.

The man's arms are spread, while in his right hand he holds what may be a ritual object which hangs downwards.

Shamanism was a common feature of Stone Age culture, and images of shamans can be seen in numerous other caves, including Trois Freres in the Ariège and Gabillou in the Périgord.

Archaeologists also discovered a number of abstract signs (such as dots and crosshatch signs) in red and yellow ochre pigments.

In all cases, the contents of the ochre paint included hematite, aluminium and titanium - a mixture well-suited for rock painting.

Many pictures are covered with calcite which preserves them but makes them difficult to view.

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Dating the Paintings

According to Dr Alessandra Astes, head of the Natural History Museum in Verona, researchers used a combination of methods to date the paintings.

They used carbon dating techniques on the calcite overlying the images, backed up by analysis of the archaeological layers in which the paintings were embedded.

Findings showed that the paintings dated back to about 34,500 BC.

Significance

Like the Abri Castanet engravings in the Dordogne, Fumane's cave painting was "everyday art" created in occupied caves by hunter-gatherers, rather than the more thoughtful paintings created in empty caves by specialist painters, like those at Chauvet and elsewhere.

Also, the speed with which modern man began producing art at both Fumane and Castanet, suggests that he brought his artistic skill with him from Africa, rather than developing it after his arrival in Europe.

Neanderthals Get the Last Laugh

In 2005, researchers at Fumane cave recovered a fragment of a fossil marine shell (Aspa marginata) decorated with a red material. Microscopic analysis identified the material as hematite, or red ochre.

The shell was likely worn as a pendant or other form of personal adornment.

The shell is dated to 45,600-43,000 BC.

It was almost certainly brought from a location at least 100 km away, as the closest shells of this type are reported from Miocene and Pliocene deposits south of the Po Valley.

Which means that the oldest art in the cave is decorative art created by H. neanderthalensis.

To understand how Fumane's figurative pictures fit into the evolution of Stone Age painting, see: Timeline of Prehistoric Art (from 540,000 BC).

References

(1) "Paintings in Italian Cave May Be Oldest Yet." Michael Balter. Science. 20 Oct, 2000. Vol 290, Issue 5491 pp.419-21.
(2) "An Ochered Fossil Marine Shell From the Mousterian of Fumane Cave, Italy" (PDF). Peresani, Marco; Vanhaeren, Marian; Quaggiotto, Ermanno; Queffelec, Alain; d’Errico, Francesco (2013). PLOS ONE. 8 (7): e68572.

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