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Did Neanderthals create Europe's first cave paintings?

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. 

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The Panel of Hands at El Castillo Cave in Spain. Researchers have now dated one of these hand stencils back to 37,300 years ago.

Pedro Saura

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A series of cave paintings in Spain are thousands of years older than scientists realized, raising speculation — but no proof — that Neanderthals could have been the earliest wall artists in Europe.

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]

Our cultured ancestors

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