World’s Oldest Art? Uranium-thorium Dating Used on Spanish Cave Paintings

Neanderthal Art

Scientists tested the Spanish cave paintings, that were first discovered in the 1870’s and found that one is at least 40,800 years old, which is about 15,000 years older than they previously thought. If they are this old, it makes the Spanish cave paintings older than the famous French cave paintings by thousands of years.

Scientists dated the Spanish cave paintings by the Neanderthals by measuring the decay of uranium atoms, instead of traditional carbon-dating. They tested the coating of these paintings in 11 different Spanish caves.

The Spanish paintings had built a crust of calcium carbonate on them over time. According to the Guardian, The crust held radioactive uranium, the element that decays to thorium. Measurements of the buildup of thorium could reveal how long ago those crusts formed and, since they were on top of the paintings, indicate a minimum age for the drawings.

Uranium-thorium dating has been in use since the 1960s but required hundreds of grams of calcium carbonate. Zilhão and Pike’s team were able to use only a few tens of milligrams, with their new method.

In order to prove the Neanderthals cave art creation, scientists will need to find and date more samples from different caves using this new technique. If they discover more paintings pre-dating the arrival of modern humans into Europe, older than 42,000 years old, it will tell us that the Neanderthals were the world’s first cave artists.

Alistair Pike, of the University of Bristol, who led the research said, “This is currently Europe’s oldest-dated art, by at least 4,000 years. We know the modern humans arrived in Europe between 42,000 and 41,000 years ago.”

João Zilhão, of the University of Barcelona, an author on the Science paper said, “Perhaps we should start thinking of Neanderthals as the European brand of Homo sapiens, morphologically different from what we call the modern humans in Africa. But they were sapient people as well – that is probably the implication of the last decade of results.”

“It would not be surprising if they were indeed Europe’s first cave artists. In the context of what we’ve learned about Neanderthals in the last decade it really should not be very surprising,” Zilhão added.

Earliest Paintings by Neanderthals

Scientists speculate whether the drawings found in the caves of northern Spain were painted by modern humans or Neanderthals.

Photo Credit: Pedro Saura

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