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Cave art in Spain is the oldest in Europe, new dating method shows

June 14, 2012|By Thomas H. Maugh II
  • The Panel of Hands at El Castillo cave in northern Spain. The hand stencils are dated at 37,300 years old, the disk is at least 40,600 years old.
The Panel of Hands at El Castillo cave in northern Spain. The hand stencils… (Image courtesy of Pedro…)

Using a new dating technique, researchers from Britain, Spain and Portugal have shown that cave art in Spain is the oldest in Europe, as much as 10,000 years older than some previously dated cave art in France. The oldest art they found was nearly 41,000 years old, which means it was produced about the same time that anatomically modern humans first entered Europe from Africa. That means either that the modern humans brought the technique with them from Africa, that their new creativity was inspired by conflict and competition with the Neanderthals, or that the art was done by the Neanderthals themselves, said archaeologist Joao Zilhao of the University of Barcelona. Because no cave paintings have been found in Africa, "There is a strong chance that these results imply Neanderthal authorship, but I would not say we have proven it because we haven't," Zilhao said.

In the past, dating cave art has been very difficult. The favored method was radiocarbon dating, but for that to work, either the pigment or the binder has to be carbon-based. Removing a sample for testing damages the painting, moreover, and the technique is very susceptible to contamination, such as if bacteria or mold has been growing on the surface. Several attempts to carbon-date some paintings have produced values that are different by as much as 10,000 years.

A team headed by archaeologist Alistair Pike of the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom decided to use uranium-thorium dating. When thin carbonate crusts form on cave art, they incorporate minute amounts of uranium, just like stalagmites and stalactites. The uranium eventually decays to thorium. When the team collects a "tiny, tiny" sample of the carbonate, they can use mass spectrometry to count the number of uranium and thorium atoms and, from the ratio, determine the age. The age of carbonate on the surface of a painting gives the minimum age of the artwork, and the age of carbonate behind it gives a maximum age.

The team reported in the journal Science that they examined 50 paintings in 11 caves in northern Spain. Hand stencils and disks made by blowing paint onto the wall in the El Castillo cave, for example, were found to be at least 40,800 years old, making them the oldest known art in Europe. A large club-shaped symbol in the famous polychrome chamber at Altamira was found to be at least 35,600 years old, about 10,000 years older than previously thought. Moreover, that cave was visited and repainted several times over a 20,000-year period.

The team is already collecting samples from other caves, looking for even older artwork. If they find any that are older than 42,000 years -- when modern humans reached Europe -- "we would have to accept the implication that Neanderthals are doing it," Zilhao said.

"We were not expecting these results," Pike said. "Our idea was simply to improve the chronology of cave art...We ended up with these results, which raise new questions that we will try to answer in coming years."

In a perspective article accompanying the report, archaeologist Paul Pettitt of the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom noted that, "Until now, our understanding of the age of cave art was sketchy at best; now we have firmly extended the earliest age of European cave art back by several thousand years, to the time of the last Neanderthals and the earliest Homo sapiens. These earliest images do not represent animals, and suggest that the earliest art was non-figurative, which may have significant implications for how art evolved."

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