World’s Oldest Cave Art Possibly Made by Neanderthals

Cave paintings in northern Spain, possibly created by Neanderthals, may be the oldest known examples in the world, according to a new analysis.

Hand stencils and disks made by blowing paint onto the wall in El Castillo cave were found to date back at least 40,800 years, according to a team of researchers led by Alistair Pike of the University of Bristol in England. One red disk depiction found in Spain pre-dates pictures at Chauvet cave in France by about 4,000 years, they said. Their analysis was published today in the journal Science.

The archaeologists used a method based on the radioactive decay of uranium to analyze calcium carbonate crusts formed on top of the paintings. The El Castillo artworks are “the oldest reliably dated paintings in the world,” Pike told reporters on a conference call, dismissing claims made by scientists in Australia and India, whose dating methods “suffer from ambiguities.”

As for their authorship, there is a “strong probability” that Neanderthals can be credited, as modern humans arrived in Europe between 41,000 and 42,000 years ago and Neanderthals still existed 40,000 years ago, said Joao Zilhao, a professor of paleolithic archaeology at the University of Barcelona. Evidence of symbolic culture, such as body painting and pendants made of bones and ivory, have already been associated with Neanderthals from about 50,000 years ago, he said.

Nail in Coffin

“So it would not be surprising if the Neanderthals were indeed Europe’s first cave artists,” he said. The discovery at El Castillo may be “the last nail in the coffin of the notion of Neanderthals as the archetypal dumb retard.”

As the possibility still exists that modern humans may have painted the cave walls, further tests are necessary, and any samples that pre-date their arrival would prove Neanderthal authorship, Pike said.

“Given that no Neanderthal art of this kind has previously been found, this would represent an extraordinary discovery,” said David Whitley, former chief archaeologist at University of California, Los Angeles, in an e-mail. “In science, extraordinary discoveries require extraordinary evidence.”

The traditional method of radiocarbon dating, used to date the Chauvet cave paintings, wasn’t employed as they don’t work where there is no organic pigment. Recent developments in uranium-series dating have enabled scientists to reduce the size of samples from a gram (0.04 ounce) of material to about 10 milligrams, Pike said. That has in turn permitted the collection of more samples, he said.

“What’s really exciting about the possibility that this is Neanderthal art is that anyone, because it’s open to the public, can walk into El Castillo cave and see a Neanderthal hand on the wall,” Pike said. “And this is something that is invisible to archaeology, or has been until we worked out where to look.”

The research was funded by the U.K. Natural Environment Research Council.

To contact the reporter on this story: Makiko Kitamura in London at mkitamura1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Phil Serafino at pserafino@bloomberg.net

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