News / Science & Technology

Ancient Cave Art Could Be From Neanderthals

Hand prints dating from 37,000 years ago, and a red disk from 40,600 years ago (not pictured), in El Castillo Cave in Spain, are the oldest cave paintings in Europe. (Pedro Saura)
Hand prints dating from 37,000 years ago, and a red disk from 40,600 years ago (not pictured), in El Castillo Cave in Spain, are the oldest cave paintings in Europe. (Pedro Saura)
Rosanne Skirble
Scientists believe cave paintings discovered in Spain could be the work of Neanderthals, our closest prehistoric relatives, who lived throughout Europe and Asia until about 30,000 years ago.

"This currently is Europe’s oldest dated art, by at least 4,000 years,” says Alistair Pike of the University of Bristol in England.  

A new study in the journal Science dated 50 paintings in 11 caves, which are believed to be up to 40,000 years old.

Europe's oldest art

Researchers analyzed the thin layer of calcite that formed on top of the art and measured the radioactive decay of uranium.

Unlike radio carbon dating, this method can be used on mineral pigments like those in the caves. It is also more accurate, less invasive and able to date further back in time. 
Project leader Alistair Pike of Bristol University removes calcite samples from the cave paintings for dating. As little as 10 milligrams, about the size of a grain of rice, is required. (Marcos Garcia Diez)Project leader Alistair Pike of Bristol University removes calcite samples from the cave paintings for dating. As little as 10 milligrams, about the size of a grain of rice, is required. (Marcos Garcia Diez)
x
Project leader Alistair Pike of Bristol University removes calcite samples from the cave paintings for dating. As little as 10 milligrams, about the size of a grain of rice, is required. (Marcos Garcia Diez)
Project leader Alistair Pike of Bristol University removes calcite samples from the cave paintings for dating. As little as 10 milligrams, about the size of a grain of rice, is required. (Marcos Garcia Diez)

Pike, the study's lead author, perfected this technique in caves and on ancient bones. Among the samples described in the study are 37,300-year-old hand stencils made by blowing colored pigment onto a cave wall.

In the same cave, a red disc made by a very similar technique was dated at 40,800 years old.  

According to the historical record, modern humans arrived in Europe, moving north from Africa, between 42,000 and 41,000 years ago. If the calcite crust on top of the red disc symbol is 40,800 years old, Pike says, that means the work underneath it is even older and may very well be Neanderthal.  

Neanderthal cave artists

That Neanderthals might be Europe’s first cave artists comes as no surprise to Joao Zilhao, a research professor at the University of Barcelona, who co-authored the study.

“We know that from the fact that they were burying their dead, that they were decorating bone and ivory tools with abstract markings, and from the fact that they were painting their bodies using sophisticated cosmetic recipes, in some instances, and that they were using objects of personal ornamentation," Zilhao says. "We know they were doing this from at least 50,000 years ago, and in the case of burials from at least 100,000 years ago.”
 
Zilhao says the new dates produced in the study further challenge assumptions about our shared evolutionary history. 
Red discs from between 34,000 and 36,000 years ago in the Corredor de los Puntos, El Castilo Cave, Spain. (Pedro Saura)Red discs from between 34,000 and 36,000 years ago in the Corredor de los Puntos, El Castilo Cave, Spain. (Pedro Saura)
x
Red discs from between 34,000 and 36,000 years ago in the Corredor de los Puntos, El Castilo Cave, Spain. (Pedro Saura)
Red discs from between 34,000 and 36,000 years ago in the Corredor de los Puntos, El Castilo Cave, Spain. (Pedro Saura)

“We know from the Neanderthal Genome Project that four percent of the genes of present day Europeans are of Neanderthal origin," Zilhao says. "So perhaps we should start thinking of these people as the European brand of homo-sapiens, that were morphologically different from what we call modern humans in Africa, but they were sapien people as well.”

The study only sampled a small portion of cave art in Europe. To prove the work is Neanderthal, the team must collect more samples which predate the arrival of modern humans in Europe. That effort is now under way.  

“At the moment [it] is targeting hand stencils and red discs and red symbols in order to see whether or not dates that are significantly older than 41,000 or 42,000 can be found in similar samples from other paintings,” Pike says, adding that the earlier dates will help document not only who painted them, but why.  

The creation of art, he notes, is considered an important sign of intellect and language development.

You May Like

Koreas Mark 61st Anniversary of War Armistice

Muted observances on both sides of heavily-armed Demilitarized Zone that separates two decades-long enemies More

Judge Declares Washington DC Ban on Public Handguns Unconstitutional

Ruling overturns capital city's prohibition on carrying guns in pubic More

Pricey Hepatitis C Drug Draws Criticism

Activists are using the International AIDS Conference to criticize drug companies for charging high prices for life-saving therapies More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Students in Business for Themselvesi
X
Mike O'Sullivan
July 26, 2014 11:04 AM
They're only high school students, but they are making accessories for shoes, fabricating backpacks and doing product photography - all through their own businesses. It's the result of a partnership between a non-profit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and their schools. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan and Deyane Moses met the budding entrepreneurs near Los Angeles.
Video

Video Students in Business for Themselves

They're only high school students, but they are making accessories for shoes, fabricating backpacks and doing product photography - all through their own businesses. It's the result of a partnership between a non-profit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and their schools. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan and Deyane Moses met the budding entrepreneurs near Los Angeles.
Video

Video Astronauts Train in Underwater Lab

In the world’s only underwater laboratory, four U.S. astronauts train for a planned visit to an asteroid. The lab - called Aquarius- is located five kilometers off Key Largo, in southern Florida. Living in close quarters and making excursions only into the surrounding ocean, they try to simulate the daily routine of a crew that will someday travel to collect samples of a rock orbiting far away from earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Not Even Monks Spared From Thailand’s Junta-Backed Morality Push

With Thailand’s military government firmly in control after May’s bloodless coup, authorities are carrying out plans they say are aimed at restoring discipline, morality and patriotism to all Thais. The measures include a crackdown on illegal gambling, education reforms to promote students’ moral development, and a new 24-hour phone hotline for citizens to report misbehaving monks. Steve Sandford reports from Bangkok.
Video

Video Virtual Program Teaches Farming Skills

In a fast-changing world beset by unpredictable climate conditions, farmers cannot afford to ignore new technology. Researchers in Australia are developing an online virtual world program to share information about climate change and more sustainable farming techniques for sugar cane growers. As VOA's Zlatica Hoke reports, the idea is to create a wider support network for farmers.
Video

Video Airline Expert: Missile will Show Signature on Debris

The debris field from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is spread over a 21-kilometer radius in eastern Ukraine. It is expected to take investigators months to sort through the airplane pieces to learn about the missile that brought down the jetliner and who fired it. VOAs Carolyn Presutti explains how this work will be done.
Video

Video Treatment for Childhood Epilepsy Heats up Medical Marijuana Debate

In the United States, marijuana is classed as an illegal drug by the federal government. But nearly half the states have legalized it, to some degree. Proponents say some strains of marijuana might have exceptional health benefits, for treating pain or inflammation in chronic conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy. Shelley Schlender reports on a strain of medical marijuana developed in Colorado that is reputed to reduce seizures in childhood epilepsy
Video

Video Airbus Adds Metal 3D Printed Parts to New Jets

By the end of this year, European aircraft manufacturing consortium Airbus plans to deliver the first of its new, extra-wide-body passenger jets, the A350-XWB. Among other technological innovations, the new plane will also incorporate metal parts made in a 3-D printer. VOA's George Putic has more.
Video

Video AIDS Conference Welcomes Exciting Developments in HIV Treatment, Prevention

Significant strides have been made in recent years toward the treatment and prevention of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. This year, at the International AIDS Conference, the AIDS community welcomed progress on a new pill that may prevent transmission of the deadly virus. VOA’s Anita Powell reports from Melbourne, Australia.
Video

Video IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Form

Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.

AppleAndroid