More than 30,000 years ago, early cave artists in what is now southwestern France ventured deep underground into limestone caves, where they painted elaborate and detailed frescoes of the huge animals that dominated their lives. The accuracy of the depictions was remarkable – far better than most of us could manage crouched under a sloping damp wall under the flickering light cast by flaming bundles of vegetation and fat.
The paintings record a world of cave lions, mammoth, bison and horses, which we are only just beginning to unravel using the combined technologies of ancient DNA and radiocarbon dating. The results show that despite studying cave art for hundreds of years, we have been blind to some of the important stories the artists were telling.
Our research is a case in point. We have used ancient DNA from fossil bones to deduce the existence of a newly discovered bison species – only to discover that it was already recorded on the walls of caves across Europe, such as in Niaux Cave in southwestern France 17,000 years ago.
DNA detective story
In 1999, we began studying DNA from ancient bison bones found across the northern hemisphere, where Steppe bison had ranged from modern-day Britain to Mexico during the late Ice Age. Our aim was to study the impacts of climate change on animal populations, and sure enough we quickly found that in North America, populations of bison collapsed dramatically around the Last Glacial Maximum (between about 18,000 and 21,000 years ago).
This was well before humans arrived in North America, and it was the first clear demonstration of the key role played by climate change in the extinctions of bison, along with a range of other large species collectively known as “megafauna”.
www.Ancient-Origins.net – Reconstructing the story of humanity’s past