Spain has some of the most ancient cave paintings in the world with three sites in particular recognised as World Heritage sites for the antiquity of the paintings.
However, new dating techniques have shown that the paintings, especially those at the World Heritage sites of Altamira, El Castillo and Tito Bustillo are even older than first thought. According to the BBC , one red spot has been found to be more than 40,000 years old.
Dr Alastair Pike from Bristol University, lead author of a paper published on the subject says:
"In Cantabria, [in] El Castillo, we find hand stencils that are formed by blowing paint against the hands pressed against the wall of a cave. We find one of these to date older than 37,300 years on 'The Panel of Hands', and very nearby there is a red disc made by a very similar technique that dates to older than 40,800 years. This now currently is Europe's oldest dated art by at least 4,000 years".
In the paper, published in Science Magazine, Dr Pike and his team explain:
"Paleolithic cave art is an exceptional archive of early human symbolic behavior, but because obtaining reliable dates has been difficult, its chronology is still poorly understood after more than a century of study. We present uranium-series disequilibrium dates of calcite deposits overlying or underlying art found in 11 caves, including the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage sites of Altamira, El Castillo, and Tito Bustillo, Spain".
Using this method, they were able to more accurately date the cave paintings than so far possible and suggest that some may even have been created by Neanderthals, a new idea in the world of cave painting art as Neanderthals had not previously been thought of as able to produce art work.
A co-author on the paper is Joao Zilhao, an anthropologist at the University of Barcelona who says that "Cave paintings are one of the most exquisite examples of human symbolic behavior. There is a strong chance that these results imply Neanderthal authorship, but I will not say we have proven it because we haven’t".
Everyone is in agreement that the paintings, some of which have been created by blowing paint over hands pressed against the cave walls to produce a stencil effect and others of which are more basic dot patterns, are indeed very, very old. Many have had later paintings of animals, hunting scenes etc painted over them. Where scientists differ is to whether the paintings were created by the very first 'Homo sapiens' as they made their way from Africa in to Europe for the first time or, slightly controversially, whether the artworks were created by Neanderthals who were the dominant species in Europe at the time to which the paintings have now been dated.
The Australian reports a Griffith University rock expert called Paul Tacon as saying:
"If the new dates hold up, the results are astonishing. Either rock painting was part of the cultural baggage the first modern humans brought with them to Europe . . . or Neanderthals were putting hand stencils on cave walls when modern humans arrived".
Perhaps a new look at our pre-historic cousins and their art making abilities needs to taken and indeed Dr Pike and his team are now carrying out further research, dating more European cave paintings, to discover who exactly created them.