The earliest known cave paintings fuel arguments about whether Neanderthals were the mental equals of modern humans.
Tim Appenzeller | NATURE
In a damp Spanish cave, Alistair Pike applies a small grinder to the world’s oldest known paintings. Every few minutes, the dentist-drill sound stops and Pike, an archaeologist from the University of Southampton, UK, stands aside so that a party of tourists can admire the simple artwork — hazy red disks, stencilled handprints, the outlines of bison — daubed on the cave wall tens of thousands of years ago. He hopes that the visitors won’t notice the small scuff marks he has left.
In fact, Pike’s grinder — and the scalpel that he wields to scrape off tiny samples — is doing no harm to the actual paintings, and he is working with the full approval of the Spanish authorities. Pike is after the crust of calcite that has built up over the millennia from groundwater dripping down the wall. The white flecks that he dislodges hold a smattering of uranium atoms, whose decay acts as a radioactive clock. A clock that has been ticking ever since the calcite formed on top of the art.
The results of an earlier round of sampling in El Castillo cave, published last June1, showed that the oldest of the paintings, a simple red spot, dates to at least 40,800 years ago, roughly when the first modern humans reached western Europe. Pike and his colleagues think that when they analyse the latest samples, the paintings may turn out to be older still, perhaps by thousands of years — too old to have been made by modern humans. If so, the artists must have been Neanderthals, the brawny, archaic people who were already living in Europe.
The answer won’t be known for at least a year, but if it favours the Neanderthals, it could tip — if not resolve — a debate that has rumbled for decades: did the Neanderthals, once caricatured as brute cavemen, have minds like our own, capable of abstract thinking, symbolism and even art? It is one of the most haunting questions about the people who once shared a continent with us, then mysteriously vanished.