In fact, this art is so ancient that it raises the haunting possibility that Neandertals were the painters. If so, then modern humans are not the only form of humanity to create cave art. For now, however, the question of who painted this art is a matter of speculation, something that might be settled by further research.
In work published in the June 15, 2012 issue of Science, researchers studied 50 paintings in eleven caves in the northernmost part of Spain, including the UNESCO World Heritage sites of Altamira, El Castillo and Tito Bustillo. The work was conducted by an international team led by Alistair Pike of the University of Bristol.
The Corredor de los Puntos, El Castillo Cave, Spain. Red disks here have been dated to 34,000-36,000 years ago, and elsewhere in the cave to 40,600 years, making them examples of Europe's earliest cave art. Image courtesy of Pedro Saura.
This research comes on the heels of a re-dating of cave painting in France, recently pushed back to 37,000 years. The latest study adds almost another 4,000 years to the confirmed date of the oldest art. What’s the combined effect of the two studies? In just the past month, our view of the antiquity of art has jumped by nearly 10,000 years, prompting us to wonder how much further back it might go. After all, it is known that AMHs mixed pigments as far back as 100,000 years ago.
Using a new method called uranium-thorium dating, Pike’s research team took a closer look at an old find. They extracted tiny samples of naturally forming deposits that covered the paintings. By dating the deposits, scientists are able to discover the date before which the paint was applied. The date of more than forty thousand years ago, therefore, is a minimum date, suggesting that some of the paintings—here or elsewhere—may be even older.
The specific painting that exceeds 40,800 years is a simple red disk, seemingly primitive when compared to paintings made later in the same caves. More striking are the handprint paintings on the wall of El Castillo cave, made by blowing paint and common in early cave art but now dated to 37,300 years ago.
Commenting on the age of the oldest painting, Pike pointed out the tight fit between the painting and the arrival of AMHs in northern Spain: “Evidence for modern humans in Northern Spain dates back to 41,500 years ago, and before them were Neanderthals. Our results show that either modern humans arrived with painting already part of their cultural activity or it developed very shortly after, perhaps in response to competition with Neanderthals – or perhaps the art is Neanderthal art,” Pike said in a press release issued by the University of Bristol.
The Panel of Hands, El Castillo Cave, Spain. A hand stencil has been dated to earlier than 37,300 years ago and a red disk to earlier than 40,600 years ago, making them the oldest cave paintings in Europe. Image courtesy of Pedro Saura.
Pike also speculated further on the possibility that researchers may someday identify some European cave art as Neandertal. He suggested that perhaps, “cave painting started before the arrival of modern humans, and was done by Neanderthals. That would be a fantastic find as it would mean the hand stencils on the walls of the caves are outlines of Neanderthals' hands, but we will need to date more examples to see if this is the case."
The article in entitled “U-series dating of Palaeolithic Art in 11 Caves in Spain” and appears in the June 15, 2012 issue of the journal Science.