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World's first cave paintings older than expected

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]

A new study has found that some cave paintings in northwestern Spain are much older than researchers had expected, raising questions about who created them. According to Alistair Pike and colleagues, the tradition of decorating caves must have began in Europe more than 40,000 years ago -- an age that coincides with the arrival of modern humans.

However, because the artwork in these caves is so old, Pike and his colleagues can't completely dismiss the possibility that these early cave paintings were created by Neandertals, who were also present in Spain when modern humans arrived.

The researchers used a technique known as uranium-thorium dating to estimate the age of mineral deposits that had grown over (and under) 50 cave paintings in 11 different caves. The mineral deposits cannot be older than the cave art itself, so they provide a minimum age for the paintings. Pike and the other researchers used the uranium-thorium dating technique because it is less destructive than radiocarbon dating, which is a more popular technique.

According to the researchers, one particular cave 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.

These earlier dates for the cave art help to document how paintings styles changed over time, they say. The findings also suggest that cave art was already a hobby of modern humans when they reached Europe, or alternatively, that Neandertals likewise participated in cave art.