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

Report: $60 Billion Leaves Africa Illegally Each Year

Report by joint UN and African Union panel says African countries need to take concrete measures to stop illegal money flow from continent each year More

Video Spy Murder Probe Likely to Further Strain British-Russian Relations

Some analysts say Russian Tu-95 bombers were flying near British airspace to warn Britain about an inquest into a murdered Russian spy More

Mugabe Defends Image Amid Controversy at Close of AU Summit

He rejects concerns about how the West might perceive his leadership, saying he's focused on African development More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Spy Murder Probe Likely to Further Strain British-Russian Relationsi
X
Henry Ridgwell
January 31, 2015 10:50 PM
Relations between Russia and the West are set to become even more strained amid an inquiry in London into the murder of a former Russian spy. Lawyers at the inquiry accuse Russian President Vladimir Putin of directing a "mafia state." Meanwhile, Royal Air Force fighters intercepted Russian bombers close to British airspace this week, prompting authorities to summon Moscow’s ambassador. Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Spy Murder Probe Likely to Further Strain British-Russian Relations

Relations between Russia and the West are set to become even more strained amid an inquiry in London into the murder of a former Russian spy. Lawyers at the inquiry accuse Russian President Vladimir Putin of directing a "mafia state." Meanwhile, Royal Air Force fighters intercepted Russian bombers close to British airspace this week, prompting authorities to summon Moscow’s ambassador. Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Ukrainian Neighborhood Divided Over Conflict

People in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk districts find themselves squarely in the path of advancing Russian-backed rebels, who want to take back the territory they held at the beginning of the conflict last year. Many local residents are afraid, but others would welcome the change, even when a rebel shell lands in their neighborhood. From the Luhansk district, 15 kilometers from where the Ukrainian government marks the front line, VOA’s Al Pessin reports.
Video

Video Threat of Creeping Lava Has Hawaiians on Edge

Residents of the small town of Pahoa on the Big Island of Hawaii face an advancing threat from the Kilauea volcano. Local residents are keeping a watchful eye on creeping lava. Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Jefferson's Library Continues to Impress, 200 Years Later

Two hundred years after the U.S. Congress purchased a huge collection of books belonging to former President Thomas Jefferson, it remains one of America’s greatest literal treasures and has become the centerpiece of Washington’s Library of Congress. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.
Video

Video Egypt's Suez Canal Dreams Tempered by Continued Unrest

Egypt plans to expand the Suez Canal, raising hopes that the end of its economic crisis may be in sight. But some analysts say they expect the project may cost too much and take too long to make life better for everyday Egyptians. VOA's Heather Murdock reports.
Video

Video Pro-Kremlin Youth Group Creatively Promotes 'Patriotic' Propaganda

As Russia's President Vladimir Putin faces international pressure over Ukraine and a failing economy, unofficial domestic groups are rallying to his support. One such youth organization, CET, or Network, uses creative multimedia to appeal to Russia's urban youth with patriotic propaganda. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Filmmakers Produce Hand-Painted Documentary on Van Gogh

The troubled life of the famous 19th century Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh has been told through many books and films, but never in the way a group of filmmakers now intends to do. "Loving Vincent " will be the first ever feature-length film made of animated hand-painted images, done in the style of the late artist. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Issues or Ethnicity? Question Divides Nigeria

As Nigeria goes to the polls next month, many expect the two top presidential contenders to gain much of their support from constituencies organized along ethnic or religious lines. But are faith and regional blocs really what political power in Nigeria is about? Chris Stein reports.
Video

Video Rock-Consuming Organisms Alter Views of Life Processes

Scientists thought they knew much about how life works, until a discovery more than two decades ago challenged conventional beliefs. Scientists found that there are organisms that breathe rocks. And it is only recently that the scientific community is accepting that there are organisms that could get energy out of rocks. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports.
Video

Video Paris Attacks Highlight Global Weapons Black Market

As law enforcement officials piece together how the Paris and Belgian terror cells carried out their recent attacks, questions are being asked about how they obtained military grade assault weapons - which are illegal in the European Union. As VOA's Jeff Swicord reports, experts say there is a very active worldwide black market for these weapons, and criminals and terrorists are buying.
Video

Video Activists Accuse China of Targeting Religious Freedom

The U.S.-based Chinese religious rights group ChinaAid says 2014 was the worst year for religious freedom in China since the end of the Cultural Revolution. As Ye Fan reports, activists say Beijing has been tightening religious controls ever since Chinese leader Xi Jinping came to office. Hu Wei narrates.
Video

Video Theologians Cast Doubt on Morality of Drone Strikes

In 2006, stirred by photos of U.S. soldiers mistreating Iraqi prisoners, a group of American faith leaders and academics launched the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. It played an important role in getting Congress to investigate, and the president to ban, torture. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid