Very old cave art shows how technology drives science

The exciting science news in this week’s issue of Science is that some cave art in Europe is much, much older than previously thought, dating back to the earliest humans in Europe. The new dates make it more plausible that some of this art was created by Neanderthals, although that is speculative.

While old cave art is cool, you may be wondering, why are they just now getting around to figuring out these old dates? The answer is, the technology finally got good enough to do it. The Uranium-thorium dating was done by scraping off a few milligrams of calcite deposits that had formed over the cave art. Since the calcite deposits formed on top of the art, dating those deposits gives you a minimum age for the art.

When Uranium Thorium dating was first invented, you needed tens of grams of sample, but the sensitivity of the technology has now improved 10,000-fold. You can take tens of grams of sample out of priceless cave art, but you can take a few milligrams.

And so, the new dates are not the result of some brilliant new, abstract, deep insight – they’re the result of amazing improvements in technology. Science is driven at least as much by technology as it is by ideas.

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