Oldest Cave Paintings Date Back At Least 40,800 Years


The El Castillo cave paintings in Northern Spain have now been dated to at least 40,800 years ago. This makes them the oldest known European cave art.

The new dating has pushed back the date of the oldest known cave art in Europe by 10,000 years, deep into the last ice age.

The research was done by dating 50 paintings in 11 different caves in Northern Spain. This included the Altamira, El Castillo, and Tito Bustillo sites.

Traditional dating methods such as radiocarbon dating don’t work where there is no organic pigment to date. So the researchers dated the formation of tiny stalagmites that formed on top of the paintings using the radioactive decay of uranium. This gave the researchers a minimum age. And for the dating of larger, painted stalagmites, there was a maximum age obtained.

Hand stencils and disks made by an air-brushing technique on the walls in the El Castillo cave were dated to at least 40,800 years ago. This is 5,000-10,000 years earlier than previous examples from France, leaving the possibility they may be impressions from the hands of Neanderthals, the stronger and larger-brained cousins of modern humans.


A large club-shaped symbol in Altamira’s famous polychrome chamber is dated to at least 35,600 years ago. This shows that painting started there at least 10,000 years earlier than previously thought, and that the cave was revisited and painted in continually for at least 20,000 years.

Dr Alistair Pike of the University of Bristol said: “Evidence for modern humans in Northern Spain dates back to 41,500 years ago, and before them were Neanderthals. Our results 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.”

“We see evidence for earlier human symbolism in the form of perforated beads, engraved egg shells and pigments in Africa 70-100,000 years ago, but it appears that the earliest cave paintings are in Europe. One argument for its development here is that competition for resources with Neanderthals provoked increased cultural innovation from the earliest groups of modern humans in order to survive. Alternatively, cave painting started before the arrival of modern humans, and was done by Neanderthals. That would be a fantastic find as it would mean the hand stencils on the walls of the caves are outlines of Neanderthals’ hands, but we will need to date more examples to see if this is the case.”

These new findings at significant because the dating of cave art has in the past been difficult.

“Engravings and, in many cases, paintings lack organic pigments or binders suitable for radiocarbon dating. 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.”

“Instead, we measured uranium isotopes in the thin calcite flowstone growths that formed on the surfaces of the paintings and engravings to date the art. This technique, known as uranium-series disequilibrium, is used extensively in Earth Sciences and avoids the problems related to radiocarbon dating.”

Dr Paul Pettit from the University of Sheffield is quoted as saying: “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 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.”

Team member and dating expert Dr Dirk Hoffmann of the National Centre for the Investigation of Human Evolution (CENIEH) in Burgos, Spain said: “The key development was our method to date tiny calcium carbonate deposits similar to stalactites. 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, whereas the larger stalactites were much less frequent.”

Source: University of Sheffield
Image Credits: Pedro Saura, Rodrigo de Balbin Behrmann

Author’s Note: “Modern Humans” is fairly misleading, anatomically modern humans have been around at least 200,000 years, and humans very similar in intelligence and superior in physical strength date back at least 500,000 years. The brain size range of these ‘archaic’ home sapiens overlaps with that of modern humans. And there were also other ‘species’ such as homo erectus and homo ergaster which lived in Europe, Asia, and Africa nearly 2 million years ago; and would have had similar intelligence and superior strength to modern humans.

Also worth noting is that humans with microcephaly (brain sizes much smaller than other humans, and than other animals even), can still participate in all the behaviors of modern life, usually only having minor mental deficits that aren’t necessarily noticeable. This implies that modern behavior has much more to do with a domestication-style change than the inability of our predecessors. And a corresponding change in the structure but not size of the brain, with an enlargement of some regions and a decrease in the size of others, as occurs in domesticated animals. The neocortex in humans is generally much larger proportionally than in other animals, while some other regions are actually proportionally smaller. The brain of a human is also more spherical, which it’s theorized might make for the more efficient travel of electrons throughout the brain.

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