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

Lesotho Faces New Round of Violence, Political Crisis

Brutal killing of military officer has sent former leaders back into S. Africa where they're watching anxiously as regional officials head in to try to restore peace More

Video VOA EXCLUSIVE: US Diplomat Expects Adoption of Bosnian Massacre Anniversary Resolution

Samantha Power says there's broad consensus about killings in Bosnia's war, but Russia calls resolution 'divisive,' backs countermeasure at UN More

UN Report Exposes Widespread Boko Haram Atrocities

Damning report graphically details pattern of vicious, widespread atrocities committed by Islamist militants More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prisoni
X
Heather Murdock
July 01, 2015 8:59 PM
As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Nubians in Kenya Face Land Challenges

East Africa's ethnic Nubians have a rich cultural history that dates back thousands of years, but in Kenya they are facing hardships, including the loss of lands they have lived on for generations. They say the government has reneged on its pledge to award them title deeds for the plots. VOA's Lenny Ruvaga reports.
Video

Video Military Experts Question New Russian Tank Capabilities

Russia has been showing off its new tank design – the Armata T-14. Designers claim it is 20 years ahead of current Western designs - and driving it feels like playing a computer game. But military analysts question those assertions, and warn the cost could be too heavy a burden for Russia’s struggling economy. Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.

VOA Blogs