Cave Dwellers

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

Originally Published: 

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.

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

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

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.

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

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:

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

Anna Mardo/Moment/Getty Images

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.

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

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