Brutish? You have to hand it to the Neanderthals after all

Cave paintings dated as 15 milliennia older than originally thought, making them Europe's earliest known paintings

Neanderthal Man, normally typecast as brutish, unsophisticated and primitive, may well have had a distinctly artistic streak, according to new archaeological research.

A series of Stone Age cave paintings in northern Spain, long-thought to be less than 25,000 years old, have just had their dates pushed back more than 15 millennia making them Europe’s oldest known definitively-dated paintings.

The new date for the art works means that, on balance of probabilities, they were potentially painted by Neanderthals rather than members of our own species of humanity, Homo sapiens.

The dating test on the cave paintings shows they were painted at some stage prior to 41,000 years ago – and potentially up to several thousand years earlier. The reason for the imprecision is that scientists got their date from a layer of calcium carbonate (stalagmite material) which had formed immediately over the surface of the painting at some stage after the art work had been painted.

If the art works – images of hands and red discs – were painted during the 500 or so years prior to the formation of the calcium carbonate layer, then they could be the work of either Neanderthal or Homo sapiens (our species), because the first Homo sapiens humans arrived in the area 41,500 years ago.

But if the paintings were created before that date, they would therefore have had to have been the work of Neanderthal Man.

The discovery is particularly important because of its implication for understanding Neanderthals and/or the complex interaction between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens.

Significantly, cave art was not a Homo sapiens tradition prior to their arrival in Europe. There are no equivalent really early art works in Homo sapiens’ original homeland, Africa.

This may suggest that either  early European cave art emerged as a result of some sort of social behaviour developed by Homo sapiens in Europe (perhaps due to competition with Neanderthals) – or, alternatively, and much more controversially,  that Neanderthals ‘invented’ cave painting and somehow passed the tradition on to Homo sapiens.

The idea that the artistic member of the human evolutionary family was originally Neanderthal Man rather than us, and that the Neanderthals ‘taught’ our species a love of art would certainly turn popular perceptions of Neanderthal/Homo sapiens interaction on its head.

But there is other evidence suggesting that Neanderthals were keen on artistic self-expression. Although the Spanish ‘painted hands’ and red discs are the first potentially Neanderthal paintings ever identified and accurately dated, objects decorated with mineral pigments (similar to those used for the paintings) have been found on a Neanderthal site 430 miles south of the newly-dated cave art. Elsewhere in Europe there is possible Neanderthal use of pigments in central France – and a very early use by Neanderthals of red ochre pigment in the Netherlands.

The ‘painted hands’ and red discs were made by artists, using their mouths as spray cans. Ground ochre was first mixed with liquid – presumably water. Then the Stone Age artist filled his or her mouth with the resultant red mixture and blew it out onto the wall or roof of the cave, usually using his or her left hand as a stencil. In the cave where the paintings have been dated, around 25 such ‘negative’ stencil images were created in which the shape of the artists’ left hand are seen against a red ochre background.

The joint Spanish/Portuguese/British project to date the art was led by Dr. Alistair Pike of the University of Bristol and funded by the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council. The findings are published in the current issue of  Science. The paintings are located in El Castillo cave near Santander in northern Spain.

The dating of the natural layer of calcium carbonate covering the paintings has been carried out by analysing traces of the elements uranium and thorium. Uranium decays radio-actively to form thorium at a set speed. By measuring the ratio of uranium to thorium isotopes in the calcium carbonate, scientists have been able to work out its age and therefore the minimum age of the painting it covers.

The technique is accurate to within 1% - and is effective in dating suitable material as old as half a million years.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'