January 31, 2013

Maps of lamp usage in Paleolithic SW Europe

Illustration by Arturo Asensio
Decorating Altamira Cave
As I have briefly mentioned before David Sánchez has a most interesting series of articles (in Spanish language) these days, at his blog Noticias de Prehistoria - Prehistoria al Día, dealing with the usage of oil lamps in SW Europe (France, Iberian Peninsula) in the Upper Paleolithic. If you are familiar with Spanish language (or willing to use an online translator), you can read them at the following links: PART 1, PART 2 and PART 3 (update: part 4 is now also online).

To be most synthetic I will essentially borrow the excellent maps which shall give us a glimpse of the spread and time frame of this illumination fashion in the region:

Lamps found in France with chronology and type of site (Beaune & White 1993)
Lamps found in Iberia (by David Sánchez)

It must be mentioned, following the original articles, that the lamps of Iberia have all been found inside caves (while in France the locations are more diverse) and also nearly all them belong to the Magdalenian period. The exceptions are Bolinkoba (8), which is from a Solutrean chronology, La Trinidad de Ardales (1), which has no context, and a possible ill-documented lamp from Lezetxiki (14), originally argued to be of either Aurignacian or Mousterian context. 

Even if you don't understand Spanish, I would suggest to take a look at the original articles for the many illustrations of a varied array of lamps.


  1. This is one of those things that is so obvious but only after someone else mentions it. How did people create those cave paintings without a good light source?

    1. Alternatives would be torches (and I believe that there's also some indirect evidence for them) but they produce quite a bit of smoke, so not really good for going into deep small galleries.

      I'm now thinking also of candles. It is well known the like for honey of many forager peoples through the World, who collect it even from African bees (who, as you probably know, are very aggressive and can easily kill you). That practice would also produce wax, which could be used to make candles if someone thought of it. But of course candles would leave hardly any archaeological evidence and I know of no specific indicator of their use (although it is indeed very old) so I am just speculating here.

    2. "That practice would also produce wax..."

      Modern foragers merely eat the honeycomb, wax and all, from what I've seen. There seems no obvious reason why a Paleolithic people would apply such an involved processing technique to such a simple and precious foodstuff. The suggestion of beeswax candles at such an early date is wildly anachronistic.

      Your assertions aside, wax refinement, and the production and use of candles, could and I suspect would have left some trace in either associated material assemblages or in the painted caves themselves. Candles drip, you know, and their use in a cave is obvious.

      Tallow or, in a cool marine environment, blubber would have been far more readily available in a Paleolithic context. It could fuel torches or be burned in the lamps that we know that they had. For that matter, even if they were extracting beeswax in the Paleolithic, unlikely though that seems at first glance, they would have still likely burned it in a lamp-like vessel. It's difficult to see what might be gained from doing otherwise.

    3. I said clearly: "I am just speculating here".

      Waxes are organic compounds that characteristically consist of long alkyl [alkane] chains. I.e. wax will drip but I don't think it will persist over time: bacteria or funghi will eat it sooner than later. It's much like wood or leather: they seem not perishable in the short term but they do rot away eventually.

      Said that, I have no other reason to think they were used before the Chinese apparently developed them in the 3rd century BCE. On the other hand, nobody can assure us that candles are not much older than this date. Wikipedia argues that it was the availability of olive oil what contained somewhat the spread of candles to Europe but it seems to me a silly argument because olive oil was then as now relatively expensive far away from the Mediterranean centers of production and is historically whale blubber which was used rather than vegetable oil for lamp fuel in all the Atlantic Europe I know of.

      On the other hand candles need not to be made of just wax but can have several combinations of fat, tallow, wax and even butter (Tibet). Tallow candles were popular first in Medieval Europe and there's no reason to think them as very different from an oil lamp in concept, just that the fuel remains solid most of the time in the case of the candle, what is quite convenient.

      Not only convenience may be a reason for imagining some sort of candles in the UP but also the very existence of the concept of oil-lamp, which is not very different. If instead of a liquid or liquifying fat, they had only access to some sort of more solid variant, then the resulting lamp would also be a candle.

      Also, now that I think of it, I recall asking David in the first post why of the open-circuit lamps (in which the oil would spill out of the lamp, what makes no sense). But maybe they work better with candles, when you don't need to physically retain the fuel and can let the excess to fall out the lamp/candle holder.

      But in any case just speculating, thinking freely outside the box. I have no idea of how things actually were.

    4. Experimentally I just made a candle of sorts at home with some butter and a piece of cinamon stick as wicker. It works so-so and you may want to try with some other kind of wicker like dry rosemary or pine needles instead. But it does work well enough to be a promising first experiment in the science of butter candle-making.

      As I said it is not essentially different from an oil lamp and I'm using an old seashell (normally serving as emergency ashtray) as candle holder/lamp.

  2. "But it does work well enough to be a promising first experiment in the science of butter candle-making."

    heh, cool.

    1. Couldn't but try once I read about the yak butter candles of Tibet. Next will be tallow with a rosmary wicker I guess but first I need the ingredients.


  3. The naive implication of the maps seems to be that they track geographically confined refugia of populations that were more diffuse during warmer eras before and after the glacial era.

    1. The maps talk of lamps not people. You can't make a population out of a single item. In fact they talk of lamps through four (or maybe even more) successive techno-cultural layers.

      Anyhow the greater presence of lamps in the Magdalenian also reflects the many more sites and artifacts known for this Late UP culture than for the rest, which has been (arguably?) interpreted as a demographic explosion in this period.

      In any case, the term refugium means etymologically and essentially shelter, refuge, and therefore implies a retreat from more hostile lands. Wikitionary describes it as "any local environment that has escaped regional ecological change and therefore provides a habitat for endangered species", so your usage in this case seems incorrect - unless I'm missing some nuance.


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