Neanderthals are Europe’s earliest cave artists, say scientists

'Panel of Hands', El Castillo Cave in Spain, showing red disks and hand stencils made by blowing or spitting paint onto the wall. AP   | Photo Credit: Pedro Saura

The Palaeolithic cave paintings in northern Spain are thousands of years older than previously thought and could have been drawn by Neanderthals, scientists have claimed.

Using advanced dating techniques, the scientists have been able to confirm that the oldest image, a large red disk on the wall of El Castillo cave in northern Spain, is more than 40,800 years old.

The new findings, detailed in the journal Science, also pushed the art back into a time when modern humans co-existed with their Neanderthal cousins in Europe, the scientists said.

“It would not be surprising if the Neanderthals were indeed Europe’s first cave artists,” study author Joao Zilhao, a professor at the University of Barcelona, was quoted as saying by LiveScience.

Neanderthals have been portrayed as brutish, animalistic cavemen, but the archaeological evidence suggests they weren’t dummies. They went extinct around 30,000 years ago but before that, they mingled with early modern humans, believed to have arrived in the Europe about 42,000 years ago.

Finding the age of cave paintings has been a tough task for researchers with the usual radiocarbon dating methods. But Zilhao and his team used a new method called uranium-thorium dating that studies deposits of the mineral calcite over cave paintings.

The team examined a total of 11 caves in northern Spain, including famed spots like Altamira with its painted herds of bison. At Altamira, they found an image of a red horse that dates back at least 22,000 years and a clublike image that is at least 35,600 years old. The club symbol has been painted over with the famous colorful bison herd, which dates to around 18,000 years ago. In other words, Altamira was a popular spot for artists for a very long time.

At another cave, El Castillo in northern Spain, the team found primitive art of mind-boggling age. This cave contained the 40,800-year-old red disk. It also sported a hand stencil, created by an artist spitting red pigment over his or her hand to leave a handprint, that dates back more than 37,300 years.

According to Mr. Zilhao, a minimum date of about 40,800 years ago for the calcite over the red disk suggests a painting that is even older. “It is enough that the motif is painted just a few hundred years, just a thousand years, before this minimum age to place it in a time period where there were no modern humans in Europe,” he said.

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Printable version | Jul 25, 2021 10:50:37 PM |

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