Could Neanderthals Have Been the First Cave Artists?
June 15, 2012

Could Neanderthals Have Been The First Cave Artists?

By using a new cutting-edge dating technique, researchers have discovered that the practice of painting cave art started as early as 40,000 years ago, or 10,000 years earlier than previously believed.

A team of British, Spanish and Portuguese researchers, led by Dr. Alistair Pike of the University of Bristol, investigated some 50 paintings in 11 different caves in northern Spain.

Since the paintings had no organic pigment, they could not use radiocarbon dating to determine their age, so instead they used the radioactive decay of uranium to determine a minimum age (and in some cases, maximum ages as well, when larger stalagmites had been painted) for the artwork, the university said in a Thursday press release.

Pike and colleagues took miniature, 10 gram samples (approximately the size of a grain of rice) from thin layers of calcite that had been covering the paintings, Reuters reporter Sharon Begley explained.

Each piece of the calcite contained a trace amount of uranium, and by measuring how much the radioactive element had decayed, they were determined how old the coats covering the paintings were -- meaning that the artwork had been around for at least that long. Of the 50 paintings analyzed this way, the majority was covered by calcite less than 25,000 years old, but five of them were covered by layers ranging in age from 35,600 years ago to more than 40,000 years ago.

The oldest of the paintings -- an image of several large red discs that were discovered in a UNESCO World Heritage site at El Castillo -- was found to be at least 40,800 years old, according to Begley and the AFP's Kerry Sheridan.

During a news conference announcing the findings, Pike told reporters that this makes the El Castillo cave art the oldest known paining in Europe "by at least 4,000 years," and said that it is quite possibly "the oldest reliably dated paintings in the world."

Furthermore, Pike's findings "raised a possibility that Neanderthals were the artists," John Noble Wilford of the New York Times wrote on Thursday.

However, as Sheridan pointed out, "Another possibility is that the cave art was done by the first modern humans to reach Europe, with the earliest evidence of their arrival dating to 41,500 years ago. The Neanderthals died out around 40,000 years ago“¦ To be certain that the work was done by Neanderthals, scientists would have to find a painting that dates older than 42,000 years, the researchers said."

"Evidence for modern humans in Northern Spain dates back to 41,500 years ago, and before them were Neanderthals. Our results show that either modern humans arrived with painting already part of their cultural activity or it developed very shortly after, perhaps in response to competition with Neanderthals — or perhaps the art is Neanderthal art," Pike said in a statement.

"We see evidence for earlier human symbolism in the form of perforated beads, engraved egg shells and pigments in Africa 70-100,000 years ago, but it appears that the earliest cave paintings are in Europe. 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," he added. "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."

"Symbolic culture clearly existed among Neanderthals“¦ [so] it wouldn't be surprising if they were Europe's first cave artists," added University of Barcelona archaeologist Joao Zilhão, senior author of the study, in an interview with Reuters. Their findings have been published in the most recent edition of the journal Science.