Europe’s oldest known cave art could be the work of Neanderthals more than 40,000 years ago, say archaeologists.

The abstract red circles and stencilled handprints decorating the walls of El Castillo cave, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in northern Spain, were discovered over a century ago, but until recently the paintings’ age had not been precisely established, because their lack of organic pigment made dating by radiocarbon analysis impossible.

Now, researchers led by the University of Bristol’s Dr Alistair Pike have dated the formation of tiny stalactites on top of the images, using the radioactive decay of uranium to establish a minimum age for the artwork of at least 40,800 years old – 10,000 years earlier than previously thought.

According to new research published in Science, this makes the Palaeolithic paintings the earliest known cave art in Europe, 5,000-10,000 years older than examples in France, and pushes the date of its creation back into a period when early humans and Neanderthals coexisted in the region.

If the ancient artists were Neanderthals, this has significant implications for perceptions of our evolutionary cousins; the development of art in early humans is considered an important milestone in the evolution of modern behaviour, associated with the capacity for abstract thought and possibly language.

‘Our results show that either modern humans arrived at this site with painting already part of their cultural activity or it developed very shortly after, perhaps in response to competition with Neanderthals – or perhaps this is Neanderthal art,’ Dr Pike said. ‘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.’


This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 54. Click here to subscribe