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27 June 2012
Iberian paintings are Europe's oldest cave art

The practice of cave art in Europe began up to 10,000 years earlier than previously thought, indicating the paintings were created either by the first anatomically modern humans in Europe, or by Neanderthals.
     Fifty paintings in 11 caves in Northern Spain, including the UNESCO World Heritage sites of Altamira, El Castillo and Tito Bustillo, were dated by a team of UK, Spanish and Portuguese researchers led by Dr Alistair Pike of the University of Bristol, UK. As traditional methods such as radiocarbon dating don't work where there is no organic pigment, the team dated the formation of tiny stalactites on top of the paintings using the radioactive decay of uranium. Their findings are particularly significant because cave art has always been difficult to date accurately.
     Hand stencils and disks made by blowing paint onto the wall in El Castillo cave were found to date back to at least 40,800 years, making them the oldest known cave art in Europe, 5,000 to 10,000 years older than examples from France. A large club-shaped symbol in the famous polychrome chamber at Altamira was found to be at least 35,600 years old, indicating that painting started there 10,000 years earlier than previously thought, and that the cave was revisited and painted a number of times over a period spanning more than 20,000 years.
     Cave art specialist Dr Paul Pettitt of the University of Sheffield, UK said: "Until now our understanding of the age of cave art was sketchy at best; now we have firmly extended the earliest age of European cave art back by several thousand years, to the time of the last Neanderthals and earliest Homo sapiens. These earliest images do not represent animals, and suggest that the earliest art was non-figurative, which may have significant implications for how art evolved."

Edited from Science Magazine, EurekAlert! (14 June 2012)

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