Earliest known art in Europe confirmed. Were the creators Neanderthals?

Dating of four caves in Spain show artwork created earlier than 64,000 years ago, predating the generally accepted date range for the arrival of modern humans in Europe by more than 20,000 years.

The La Pasiega cave wall paintings. P. Saura
An international team of researchers have concluded that prehistoric works of art discovered in four caves in Spain constitute the earliest evidence of art and symbolic thinking produced by humans in present-day Europe, and that they may have been created, not by modern humans, as is commonly thought by most scholars, but by their cousin species, the Neanderthals.

The findings have been published in two papers by researchers from Germany, UK, France and Spain, one in the journal Science and the other, Science Advances, released on Friday, February 23, 2018.

In the first study, the researchers analysed more than 60 carbonate samples taken from three different cave sites in Spain: La Pasiega in north-eastern Spain, Maltravieso in western Spain and Ardales in southern Spain. All three sites are known to feature paintings mostly in red, but sometimes in black, that show groups of animals, dots and geometric signs, hand stencils, hand prints and engravings. Some scientists have previously suggested that some of the earliest paintings may have actually been created by Neanderthals, but study has been hampered by the lack of precise dating. Now, researchers have applied U-Th (Uranium-Thorium) dating to samples taken from the caves. U-Th is a very precise dating technique based on the radioactive decay of Uranium isotopes into Thorium, which can determine the age of calcium carbonate formations as far back 500,000 years. This significantly exceeds the deep-time reach of radiocarbon dating, which has been commonly and typically used for dating materials in many archaeological contexts.

The results of their tests were exciting, indeed — showing ages exceeding 64,000 years ago — with implications about the identity of the creators. “Our dating results show that [some of] the cave art at these three sites in Spain is much older than previously thought,” says team member Alistair Pike from the University of Southampton. “With an age in excess of 64,000 years it predates the earliest traces of modern humans in Europe by more than 20,000 years. The cave art must thus have been created by Neanderthals.” The researchers further suggest that their creation involved planning a light source, mixing pigments for coloring and choosing a proper location.

To date, the prevailing thinking among archaeologists and scholars alike is that modern humans did not arrive on the scene in present-day Europe until about 40,000 years ago. Much of the cave art discovered in caves across Europe have been dated to periods around or later than about 40,000 years, with the earliest examples featured in Chauvet cave in France and one more recent example in El Castillo cave in Spain where a red sphere painting was dated to at least 40,800 years ago. To this Pike has said: “Evidence for modern humans in Northern Spain dates back to 41,500 years ago, and before them were Neanderthals. Our results [from the El Castillo cave] show that either modern humans arrived with painting already part of their cultural activity or it developed very shortly after, perhaps in response to competition with Neanderthals – or perhaps the art is Neanderthal art.”*

But now, Pike and colleagues have dates that delve much deeper into prehistory, suggesting, in their thinking, that Neanderthals were creating art long before modern humans showed up. 

Add to this the second study published in Science Advances, where the researchers determined the age of an archaeological deposit located at Cueva de los Aviones, a sea cave in Southeast Spain. This cave contained perforated sea shells, red and yellow colorants and shell containers including complex mixes of pigments. Here again, the researchers used U-Th dating to determine the age of the calcium carbonate flowstone that was covering and protecting the deposit. “We dated the deposit underlying the flowstone to an age of about 115,000 years”, said Dirk Hoffmann of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. Although this date compares to dates on similar finds in Africa** associated with modern humans, there is no evidence thus far for modern human occupation of present-day Europe exceeding much more than 40,000 years ago. New evidence has emerged recently, however, for an archaic modern human presence in the Levant as far back as 177,000 to 194,000 years ago. As new discoveries are being made, it would thus not be inconceivable to find evidence for archaic modern humans in present-day Europe consistent with the dates determined for the finds in the four Spanish caves. Nonetheless, for now, it is reasonable to hypothesize that the findings from these recent Spanish cave studies belong to Neanderthals, indicating a cognitive capacity roughly equal to that of their modern human contemporaries. “According to our new data Neanderthals and modern humans shared symbolic thinking and must have been cognitively indistinguishable”, said Joao Zilhao of the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies in Barcelona, and who was involved in both studies. “On our search for the origins of language and advanced human cognition we must therefore look much farther back in time, more than half a million years ago, to the common ancestor of Neanderthals and modern humans.”

Panel 3 in Maltravieso Cave showing 3 hand stencils (centre right, centre top and top left). One has been dated to at least 66,000 years ago and must have been made by a Neanderthal (color enhanced). Credit H. Collado



This article was produced with additional material edited and adapted from subject news releases of the University of Southampton, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, and Science. 

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