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

Scotland Vote Raises Questions of International Law

Experts say self-determination, as defined and protected by international law, confined narrowly to independence movements in process of de-colonization More

Whaling Summit Votes to Uphold Ban on Japan Whale Hunt

Conservationists hail ruling as a victory, but Tokyo says it will submit revised plans for a whale hunt in 2015 More

Annual Military Exercise Takes on New Meaning for Ukraine Troops

Troops from 15 nations participating in annual event, 'Rapid Trident' in western Ukraine More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Russian Economy Reeling After New Western Sanctionsi
X
September 18, 2014 2:28 AM
A new wave of Western sanctions is hitting Russia’s economy hard. State-owned energy firms continue to bleed profits and Russia’s national currency plunged to a new low this week after the U.S. and the European Union announced new sanctions to punish Russia's aggressive stance in eastern Ukraine. But as Mil Arcega reports, the sanctions could also prove costly for European and American companies.
Video

Video Russian Economy Reeling After New Western Sanctions

A new wave of Western sanctions is hitting Russia’s economy hard. State-owned energy firms continue to bleed profits and Russia’s national currency plunged to a new low this week after the U.S. and the European Union announced new sanctions to punish Russia's aggressive stance in eastern Ukraine. But as Mil Arcega reports, the sanctions could also prove costly for European and American companies.
Video

Video Belgian Researchers Discover Way to Block Cancer Metastasis

Cancer remains one of the deadliest diseases, despite many new methods to combat it. Modern medicine has treatments to prevent the growth of primary tumor cells. But most cancer deaths are caused by metastasis, the stage when primary tumor cells change and move to other parts of the body. A team of Belgian scientists says it has found a way to prevent that process. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Mogadishu's Flood of Foreign Workers Leaves Somalis Out of Work

Unemployment and conflict has forced many young Somalians out of the country in search of a better life. But a newfound stability in the once-lawless nation has created hope — and jobs — which, some say, are too often being filled by foreigners. Abdulaziz Billow reports from Mogadishu.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Iraqi Kurdistan Church Helps Christian Children Cope find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil

In the past six weeks, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have been forced to flee their homes by Islamic State militants and find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil. Despite U.S. airstrikes in the region, the prospect of people returning home is still very low and concerns are starting to grow over the impact this is having on the displaced youth. Sebastian Meyer reports from Irbil on how one church is coping.
Video

Video NASA Picks Boeing, SpaceX to Carry Astronauts Into Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, has chosen Boeing and SpaceX companies to build the next generation of spacecraft that will carry U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station by the year 2017. The deal with private industry enables NASA to end its dependence on Russia to send space crews into low Earth orbit and back. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Future of Ukrainian Former President's Estate Uncertain

More than six months after Ukraine's former President Viktor Yanukovych fled revolution to Russia, authorities have yet to gain control of his palatial estate. Protesters occupy the grounds and opened it to tourists but they are also refusing to turn it over to the state. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Mezhigirya, just north of Kyiv.
Video

Video China Muslims Work to Change Perceptions After Knife Attacks

China says its has sentenced three men to death and one woman to life in prison for a deadly knife attack in March that left more than 30 dead and 140 injured. Beijing says Muslim militants from China's restive western region of Xinjiang carried out the attacks. Now, more than six months after the incident, residents in the city are still coping with the aftermath. VOA's Bill Ide has more from Kunming.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid