Advances in radiocarbon dating by accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) have made it possible to date prehistoric cave paintings by sampling the pigment itself instead of relying on dates derived from miscellaneous prehistoric remains recovered in the vicinity of the paintings. The work at the Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l'Environnement (LSCE) concentrated on prehistoric charcoal cave paintings from southern France and northern Spain. In most caves, pigment samples were collected from several paintings, and in some instances the sample size allowed for multiple independent measurements on the same figure, so that the coherence of the calculated dates could be tested. Before being dated, each specimen was subjected to a thermal treatment preceded by an acid and basic treatment of intensity commensurate with the sample size.
Nine bison drawings from three caves in the Cantabrian region of Spain—two from Covaciella, three from Altamira, and four from El Castillo—were sampled and dated. The 27 dates fell between 13,000 and 14,500 BP, allowing us to attribute the drawings to the Magdalenian period. The 24 dates for 13 drawings in the Cosquer cave indicated two distinct periods of painting activity—one around 28,000 BP and the other around 19,000 BP. The Chauvet cave paintings turned out to be the oldest recorded to date, as five dates fell between 32,000 and 31,000 BP. After discussing the sample preparation protocol in more detail, we will discuss the ages obtained and compare them with other chronological data.