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A new paper in the journal Science questions if it were Neanderthals or humans who created the oldest known artworks found in the caves of Europe. The lead author is Alistair W.G. Pike who worked with Joao Zilhao and nine other authors on this study.

Alistair W.G. Pike taking speleothems samples from a cave site in Spain for uranium-thorium (U-Th) dating.

The authors addressed this question in, “U-Series Dating of Paleolithic Art in 11 Caves in Spain,” by not dating the material of the painting themselves, but rather through dating mineral deposits known as speleothems (commonly known as stalagmites and stalactites, which can also be solid sheets of rock) that are found directly adjacent to the material. They analyzed the speleothems for the uranium to thorium ratios of over 50 pieces of cave art from 11 caves throughout Spain, of which three results were particularly intriguing.

The study relies on the concept that mineral forming rock flows over the walls of the caves covered in paleolithic art work. In doing so, it forms a sort of time capsule, meaning that anything encased within the flowstone is older than the flowstone itself. By comparing the ratio of atoms in the minerals deposited nearest the cave wall, the team was able to calculate the lower limit on the age of the art that lies just beneath.

U-Th ratios indicate that the red disk was made at least 40,800 years ago and the hand stencils were made 37,300 years ago.

The results show that cave art began in the Early Aurignacian period, at about 40,800 years ago for a red disk and 37,300 years ago for the hand stencil which is pictured above and 35,600 years for the claviform-like symbol pictured blow.

U:Th ratios indicate this calviform symbol was made at least 35,600 years ago.

If the earliest cave paintings appeared at around or before 40,800 years ago, then this the cave art coincides with the arrival of modern humans in western Europe which is thought to be 41,500 years ago. But since 40,800 is a minimum age for the earliest cave paintings, it cannot be ruled out that the cave paintings are works of Neanderthals who we know were in Spain at least 42,000 years ago… To know for sure we need samples dating older than 42, 43, 44,000 years ago.

Pike, A., Hoffmann, D., Garcia-Diez, M., Pettitt, P., Alcolea, J., De Balbin, R., Gonzalez-Sainz, C., de las Heras, C., Lasheras, J., Montes, R., & Zilhao, J. (2012). U-Series Dating of Paleolithic Art in 11 Caves in Spain Science, 336 (6087), 1409-1413 DOI: 10.1126/science.1219957

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