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Did Neanderthals create Europe's first cave paintings?

New evidence that a series of cave paintings in Spain are thousands of years older than previously thought suggests that Neanderthals, not Homo sapiens, created the artwork. 

By Stephanie PappasLiveScience Senior Writer / June 14, 2012

The Panel of Hands at El Castillo Cave in Spain. Researchers have now dated one of these hand stencils back to 37,300 years ago.

Pedro Saura

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A series of cave paintings in Spain are thousands of years older than scientists realized, raising speculation — but no proof — that Neanderthals could have been the earliest wall artists in Europe.

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The oldest image, a large red disk on the wall of El Castillo cave in northern Spain, is more than 40,800 years old, according to an advanced method that uses natural deposits on the surfaces of the paintings to date their creation. The new findings, detailed in the June 15 issue of the journal Science, make the paintings the oldest reliably dated wall paintings ever.

They also push the art back into a time when early modern humans, who looked anatomically like us, co-existed with their Neanderthal cousins in Europe. Some researchers think the paintings may predate European Homo sapiens, suggesting that the art may not be the work of modern humans at all.

"It would not be surprising if the Neanderthals were indeed Europe's first cave artists," said study researcher Joao Zilhao, a professor at the Institució Catalana de Recerca i Estudis Avançats (ICREA) at the University of Barcelona. [See Photos of the Ancient Cave Art]

Our cultured ancestors

Neanderthals have been portrayed as brutish, animalistic cavemen, but the archaeological evidence suggests they weren't dummies. They buried their dead, made complex tools, and used decorative pigments. In 2010, Zilhao and his colleagues excavated shells coated in red and yellow pigments from a Neanderthal site in southern Spain. They suspect the pigments were used as makeup or body paint.

Neanderthals went extinct around 30,000 years ago. Before they did, they mixed and mingled with humans. Between 1 percent and 4 percent of some modern humans' DNA came from Neanderthals, indicating the two species got amorous.

Modern humans arrived on the European scene between about 41,000 and 42,000 years ago. Some of the earliest archaeological evidence of their existence shows them to be a sophisticated bunch, too. At one site in Germany with the particularly early date of between 42,000 to 43,000 years ago, archaeologists recently unearthed flutes made of bird bones and mammoth ivory, the oldest musical instruments in Europe. [10 Mysteries of the First Humans]

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