New evidence that a series of cave paintings in Spain are thousands of years older than previously thought suggests that Neanderthals, not Homo sapiens, created the artwork.
The oldest image, a large red disk on the wall of El Castillo cave in northern Spain, is more than 40,800 years old, according to an advanced method that uses natural deposits on the surfaces of the paintings to date their creation. The new findings, detailed in the June 15 issue of the journal Science, make the paintings the oldest reliably dated wall paintings ever.
They also push the art back into a time when early modern humans, who looked anatomically like us, co-existed with their Neanderthal cousins in Europe. Some researchers think the paintings may predate European Homo sapiens, suggesting that the art may not be the work of modern humans at all.
"It would not be surprising if the Neanderthals were indeed Europe's first cave artists," said study researcher Joao Zilhao, a professor at the Institució Catalana de Recerca i Estudis Avançats (ICREA) at the University of Barcelona. [See Photos of the Ancient Cave Art]
Neanderthals have been portrayed as brutish, animalistic cavemen, but the archaeological evidence suggests they weren't dummies. They buried their dead, made complex tools, and used decorative pigments. In 2010, Zilhao and his colleagues excavated shells coated in red and yellow pigments from a Neanderthal site in southern Spain. They suspect the pigments were used as makeup or body paint.
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