Cave paintings at the Altxerri cave system in the Basque region of northern Spain are about 39,000 years old, making them some of the oldest in Europe, Popular Archaeology reports.
A team of French and Spanish scientists analyzed the paintings, which include images such as the bison shown here, as well as finger marks, a feline, a bear, an unidentified animal head and more abstract markings. This early dating of these images puts them in the Aurignacian Period, believed by most archaeologists to be the first flowering of modern humans in the region, although whether or not there were still Neanderthals in the area at this time is an open question.
A later set of paintings in another part of the cave system, which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, date from “only” 29,000-35,000 years ago.
By comparison, the art at Cauvet Cave in France is about 31,000 years old, although it is of a much higher quality. The beautiful paintings there were the subject of Herzog’s breathtaking 3D documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams.
El Castillo Cave in Cantabria on Spain’s northern coast was one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites investigated for the study. The earliest dates were a minimum of 40,800 years ago for a red disk, 37,300 years for a hand stencil, and 35,600 years for a club-shaped symbol. The red disk is at least 4,000 years older than anything previously found in Europe and arguably the oldest cave art anywhere.
These early dates have sparked an interesting debate. The paintings are from the transition period between Neanderthals and the arrival of modern humans. No cave art has been firmly attributed to the Neanderthals and scholars have long debated the level of their intelligence.
Researchers used uranium-series disequilibrium dates of calcite deposits overlying art in eleven caves to determine the dates. Like radiocarbon dating, this technique measures the change in radioactive isotopes. Unlike the more common radiocarbon dating technique, however, which studies the half-life of carbon 14, this technique studies the rate of decay of uranium 234 into thorium 230, a process that happens at a precise rate. It can date calcite up to 300,000 years old.
Very thin films of calcite were sampled from just above the paintings. Being on top of the paintings, they are younger than the art, thus the paintings could be centuries older than the minimum dates given.
The results have been published in the journal Science. Meanwhile, the team is sampling more cave art in the hope of finding even earlier dates.