Cave Dwellers

Look — ancient cave artists used these three tools to paint in the dark

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Our ancient ancestors spent a lot of time in caves. Just look at the plethora of art, tools, and remains that have been uncovered by archaeologists.

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But how were early humans able to see in an incredibly dark place?

Medina-Alcaide et al, 2021, PLOS ONE

One team of archaeologists put several ancient lighting systems to the test to get a better picture of how our ancestors illuminated the darkness.

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In a study published in the journal PLOS One, the team described three tools that Paleolithic-era humans likely used: torches, fireplaces, and grease lamps.

Medina-Alcaide et al, 2021, PLOS ONE

Trace remains of all three tools have been found in caves in Southwest Europe.

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The researchers replicated the tools and tested their efficacy in a cave in the Basque region of northern Spain.

Their results: Torches burned the brightest, and kept their flame for an average of 41 minutes.

Medina-Alcaide et al, 2021, PLOS ONE

Stone lamps with fat from cows and deer burned for long periods of time, but didn’t light the space as well as torches.Medina-Alcaide et al, 2021, PLOS ONE

Fireplaces performed the worst. The team only built one, and it burned smokily until extinguishing after 30 minutes.

Medina-Alcaide et al, 2021, PLOS ONE

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However, the team reports that the air currents in their test cave may have not been the most ideal for this type of lighting.

Here’s a comparison between the light range of all three tools:

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The top panel shows the light distribution of a wooden torch, compared to a portable grease lamp (middle panel), and wood fireplace (bottom panel).Medina-Alcaide et al, 2021, PLOS ONE

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The authors don’t make a declaration that one tool is better than all the rest; rather they say each one had different benefits for different kinds of tasks that early humans did in caves.

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And replications like these help us better picture what life was like for our early ancestors.

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