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

EU Court Fines Poland for Hosting CIA 'Black Sites'

Ruling is first time a court has acknowledged suspects were held and tortured at the sites, under US program launched following the 9/11 terrorist attacks More

Migrant Issues Close to Home Spur Groups to Take Action

Groups placing water, food in the desert, or aiding detainees after release, have one common goal: no more deaths of migrants crossing illegally into the US More

Video At AIDS Conference, Prevention Pill Stirs Excitement

Truveda shows promise, spurring debate over access and other approaches More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Treatment for Childhood Epilepsy Heats up Medical Marijuana Debatei
X
Shelley Schlender
July 24, 2014 6:43 PM
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 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 Death Toll From Israel-Gaza Conflict Surpasses 700

Gaza officials say a shelling hit a compound housing a United Nations-run school in the Gaza Strip, killing more than a dozen people, during an Israeli offensive in the area. Heavy fighting between the Israeli military and Hamas militants continued on Thursday, pushing up the death toll. So far, more than 730 Palestinians and 35 Israelis have been killed in the conflict. VOA's Scott Bobb has the latest from Jerusalem.
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 Israel Targets Gaza Supply Tunnels

The Israeli military has launched a ground operation in Gaza to destroy the myriad tunnels that may have been used to smuggle weapons to Hamas. VOA's Zlatica Hoke reports that could mean more hardship for the people of Gaza, who obtain some of their essential supplies through these underground passages
Video

Video Researchers Target Low-Cost Avatar Technology

Scientists at the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies say 3-dimensional representations could revolutionize social media. Elizabeth Lee has more from Los Angeles.
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.
Video

Video In Cambodia, HIV Diagnosis Brings Deadly Shame

Although HIV/AIDS is now a treatable condition, a positive diagnosis is still a life altering experience. In Cambodia, people living with HIV are often disowned by friends, family and the community. This humiliation can be unbearable. We bring you one Cambodian woman’s struggle to overcome a life tragedy and her own HIV positive diagnosis.

AppleAndroid