The World’s Oldest Art?
Paintings in a Spanish cave may be more than 40,000 years old
PHOTO: Paintings by primitive humans have been found all over the world. (Albert Moldvay / National Geographic / Getty Images)
MAP: The oldest known cave paintings were recently found in a cave called El Castillo in Spain. (Jim McMahon)
Scientists have found the world’s oldest known cave paintings in northwest Spain. Using a new method for determining an object’s age, researchers tested paintings in 11 caves. They dated a painting of a red disc in a cave called El Castillo to be at least 40,800 years old. Handprints decorating a nearby cave date back to at least 37,000 years ago.
Before the art in the Spanish caves was tested, the oldest known cave paintings were in France. The figures found in what is known as the Chauvet Cave, in southern France, are 32,000 to 37,000 years old.
To find the Spanish paintings’ age, the research team tested the stalagmites and stalactites that have grown on the surface of the paintings. These are rock formations that grow up from the ground (stalagmites) or down from the ceiling (stalactites) of some caves. These formations contain chemical elements, including uranium and thorium. As uranium breaks down, it turns into thorium. The scientists measured the amount of uranium still present to determine the age of the stalagmites and stalactites. That information confirmed the age of the paintings.
WHO PAINTED THAT?
The process for creating these paintings was, well, primitive. Alistair Pike, one of the leaders of the cave painting research project, described the artists’ method on National Public Radio.
Pike said the cave artists placed their hands against the wall of a cave and then spit or blew pigment onto and around it. “When [they took their] hand away, there’s left a negative imprint of their hand.”
Perhaps even more interesting than dating the oldest paintings in the world is figuring out who painted them. Pike thinks it is possible that Neanderthals could have created at least some of the cave paintings. Neanderthals were what you might think of as “cavemen.” They were closely related to humans but had different bodily features.
By the time the paintings were made, Neanderthals had already lived in Europe for about 250,000 years. They didn’t completely disappear from the area until about 35,000 years ago. Modern humans, on the other hand, came to Europe about 40,000 to 50,000 years ago.
“[The painting of the red disc] could be significantly older than 40,800 years,” Pike says. “So if it took more than 700 years between the painting being done and the stalagmite forming, then it must have been Neanderthal.”
However, many anthropologists (scientists who study human culture and development) do not believe that Neanderthals practiced the advanced behavior of painting symbols.
Pike and his associates are working on dating ancient handprints at other sites throughout Europe. More evidence may prove, or disprove, that the Neanderthals were the artists behind the paintings.