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Could Neanderthals have painted?

June 14, 2012
Courtesy of Science
and World Science staff

New es­ti­mates on the date of an­cient Eu­ro­pe­an cave paint­ings raise the pos­si­bil­ity that Ne­an­der­thal peo­ple might have made them, sci­en­tists have an­nounced.

Us­ing a tech­nique known as uranium-thorium dat­ing, re­search­ers have found that some cave paint­ings in north­west­ern Spain are old­er than ex­pected. Al­is­tair Pike and col­leagues at the Uni­vers­ity of Bris­tol in the U.K. dat­ed de­posits of a min­er­al called cal­cite that had built up over 50 works of art in 11 ca­ves.

A wall in El Cas­ti­llo Cave in Spain known as the Pan­el of Hands. Hand sten­cils and sev­er­al red disks and oth­er mark­ings ap­pear. A hand sten­cil has been dat­ed to ear­li­er than 37,300 years ago and a red disk to ear­li­er than 40,600 years ago, which would make them the old­est cave paint­ings in Eu­rope. (Im­age cour­te­sy Pe­dro Saura)


The sci­en­tists rea­son that the cal­cite can’t be old­er than the art it­self, since that would mean the artists some­how paint­ed un­der it.

Pike and col­leagues de­ter­mined that the tra­di­tion of dec­o­rat­ing ca­ves with col­ored pig­ments be­gan in Eu­rope more than 40,000 years ago. That age co­in­cides with the ar­ri­val of mod­ern hu­mans, but Ne­an­der­thals who were al­so in the re­gion when mod­ern hu­mans ar­rived, ac­cord­ing to the re­search­ers. Nean­der­thals went ex­tinct sev­eral thous­and years later.

The scientists found that one paint­ing of a red disk is at least 40,800 years old, where­as an an­cient hand sten­cil is at least 37,300 years old and a club-shaped sym­bol seems to be more than 35,600 years old.

The ear­li­er dates would make these the oldest known paint­ings in Eur­ope and al­so help doc­u­ment how paint­ing styles changed over time, ac­cord­ing to the in­ves­ti­ga­tors. 

That Ne­an­der­thals might have done some of the work is seen as an ex­cit­ing pos­si­bil­ity, as any ar­tis­tic or sym­bolic ca­pa­bil­i­ties in this stocky, ex­tinct breed of hu­man rel­a­tives had been con­sid­ered far more lim­it­ed. If the paint­ings are not by Ne­an­der­thals, the find­ings could sup­port an­oth­er nov­el no­tion—that cave paint­ing was al­ready part of mod­ern hu­mans’ rep­er­toire when they reached Eu­rope, the in­vest­i­gators added.

The find­ings ap­pear in the June 15 is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Sci­ence.


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New estimates on the date of ancient European cave paintings raises the possibility that Neanderthal people might have made them, scientists have announced. Using a technique known as uranium-thorium dating, researchers have found that some cave paintings in northwestern Spain are older than expected. Alistair Pike and colleagues at the University of Bristol in the U.K., dated deposits of a mineral called calcite that had built up over 50 works of art in 11 different caves. The scientists reason that the calcite can’t be older than the art itself, since that would mean the artists somehow painted under it. Pike and colleagues determined that the tradition of decorating caves with colored pigments began in Europe more than 40,000 years ago. That age coincides with the arrival of modern humans, but Neandertals who were also in the region when modern humans arrived, according to the researchers. They found that one painting of a red disk is at least 40,800 years old, whereas an ancient hand stencil is at least 37,300 years old and a club-shaped symbol appears to be more than 35,600 years old. The earlier dates also help document how painting styles changed over time, according to the investigators. That Neanderthals might have done some of the work is seen as an exciting possibility, as any artistic or symbolic capabilities in this stocky, extinct breed of human relatives had been considered far more limited. If the paintings are not by Neanderthals, the findings could support another novel notion—that cave painting was already part of modern humans’ repertoire when they reached Europe, they added.