Neanderthals May Have Created Oldest Known Cave Paintings

By Chelsea Whyte on June 14, 2012 5:07 PM EDT

cave painting
The Panel de Los Manos in the El Castillo cave holds the oldest known cave paintings. (Photo: University of Bristol)

Neanderthals may have been the artists behind the oldest cave paintings in the world. According to new research that used new dating techniques on 50 cave paintings, cave art in Europe began 10,000 years earlier than previously thought. The three pieces of art that drew the most attention were found in Northern Spain.

"With the El Castillo cave, there's a panel that's made up of negative hand stencils, where you put your hand up against the wall and either blow or spit pigment at it, creating the stencil," said archaeologist and study co-author Alistair Pike of the University of Bristol, according to Fox News. "Next to this was a red disc, which was made with the same technique."

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Traditional radiocarbon dating relies on organic pigments, like charcoal, to determine the age of a cave painting. But gathering enough to sample without destroying the art can be difficult. Instead, a team of scientists led by Pike measured the radioactive decay of uranium in the stalactites in 11 caves that had formed on top of the paintings to determine their age. This is far more accurate than previous methods, and because it dates the layer on top of the paintings, it gives a minimum age for the art below.  

They found that paintings in the El Castillo cave were at least 40,800 years old, the oldest known cave art in Europe. Evidence for modern humans in the area dates back to 41,500 years ago, Pike said, and before that Neanderthals inhabited the area, which raises the question of whether Neanderthals were more advanced than previously thought.

"One argument for its development here is that competition for resources with Neanderthals provoked increased cultural innovation from the earliest groups of modern humans in order to survive," Pike said. "Alternatively, cave painting started before the arrival of modern humans, and was done by Neanderthals. That would be a fantastic find as it would mean the hand stencils on the walls of the caves are outlines of Neanderthals' hands, but we will need to date more examples to see if this is the case."

John Hellstrom, an authority on dating prehistoric artifacts from the University of Melbourne in Australia said, "3 of the 50 examples dated show art to have been created in Spain at around (indeed possibly before) the time of the arrival of modern humans, bringing current ideas of the prehistory of human art in southern Europe into question," according to the New York Times.

This finding could change what scientists know about human roots. Cave paintings are generally considered a marker of evolution in cognition and the use of symbolic behavior, and may also be associated with the creation of language. The new dates on these paintings make it possible that the first Homo sapiens who migrated to the Iberian peninsula from Africa were already creating art, or it could be that Neanderthals were the painters.

To determine the true authors of the art, the team is looking for even older artwork in other caves.  If they find any that are older than 42,000 years -- when modern humans reached Europe -- "we would have to accept the implication that Neanderthals are doing it," study co-author Joao Zilhao said, reports the Los Angeles Times

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