Paintings adorning the walls of caves in northern Spain were created over 40,000 years ago, possibly by Neanderthals, a new study has revealed.
Cave art at the El Castillo site, one of 11 caves studied by the team of British, Spanish, and Portuguese researchers, is now known to be the oldest in Europe, being about 4,000 years older than paintings found in caves in France.
Dating cave art has proved difficult in the past. “Engravings and, in many cases, paintings lack organic pigments or binders suitable for radiocarbon dating,” said lead researcher Alistair Pike of the University of Bristol in a press release.
“Where suitable material—such as charcoal pigments—does exist, only small samples can be dated to minimize damage to the art. This magnifies the effects of contamination and produces less accurate results.”
The scientists employed a dating technique that measures the radioactive decay of the element uranium, which is preserved in calcite crystals that formed over the paintings.
“The key development was our method to date tiny, tiny calcium carbonate deposits similar to stalactites,” said co-author Dirk Hoffmann of the National Center for the Investigation of Human Evolution (CENIEH) in Burgos, Spain, in the release.
“We can now date samples of just 10 milligrams—about as small as a grain of rice. This has allowed us to find samples that had formed directly on top of hundreds of paintings.”
This technique revealed minimum ages for the 50 paintings studied. The oldest—at least 40,800 years old—was a red disk in El Castillo cave. Hand stencils created by blowing paint onto the walls of the cave were found to be at least 37,300 years old, but may be as old as the disk.
In Altamira cave, a large club-shaped symbol was dated to at least 35,600 years old, indicating that painting began in the cave 10,000 years earlier than previously thought. Generations of artists returned for more than 20,000 years to add to the murals, the researchers found.
The findings were published online in the journal Science on June 14.
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