The dating of paintings in three caves in Spain supports the view that Neanderthals practiced cave art in the form of colored markings more than 20,000 years before the arrival of anatomically modern humans in Europe. Àfrica Pitarch Martí and her colleagues from Collaborative Research Center 806 "Our Way to Europe" conducted geoscientific analyses on red pigments from a massive stalagmitic pillar in Cueva de Ardales. The objective was to characterize the composition and possible origin of the pigments. The results showed that the composition and arrangement of the pigments cannot be attributed to natural processes, but that they were applied by spraying and in some places by blowing. The study, "The symbolic role of the underground world among Middle Palaeolithic Neanderthals," has now been published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America).
The nature of the pigments does not match natural samples taken from the floor and walls of the cave, suggesting that the pigments were brought into the cave from outside. The dating of the paintings suggests that they were applied on at least two separate occasions, once more than 65,000 years ago and another time between 45,300 and 48,700 years ago, placing the origin of the markings in the period of Neanderthal occupation. According to the authors, these are not art in the strict sense, but rather markings of selected areas of the cave whose symbolic meaning is unknown.
Already in 2017, in collaboration with Spanish, German and British colleagues, more than 70 sinter samples were taken from carbon crusts that clearly overlay pictorial artifacts and indicate a minimum age of the underlying representations. Because the crusts have formed randomly for 10,000 of years, the measured ages above the representations range from 760 years to 65,520 years before present. Of particular interest are the minimum ages of four pictorial artifacts at 65,529, 45,940, 45,290, and 38,650 years before present, says Professor Dr. Gerd-Christian Weniger of SFB 806 "Our Way to Europe": ‘According to our current knowledge, the oldest occupation of the Upper Paleolithic in Zone 5 dates back only to 35,422 years before present, so that the four samples mentioned above point to an origin of the red signs below them in the Middle Paleolithic, and can be attributed to Neanderthals. In the south of the Iberian Peninsula, there is currently no confirmed evidence for the presence of anatomically modern humans more than 34,000 years before present.’
Three of these early dates come from a massive stalagmite pillar. The edges of the pillar show an entire series of narrow sinter plumes. In these sinter curtain alone, red paint spots, dots, and lines were applied in 45 places. The youngest dated paint application is at least 45,290 years old, and the oldest is at least 65,529 years old. ‘Therefore, it can be assumed that Neanderthals were responsible for this application of red paint pigments,’ said Weniger. ‘Neanderthal authorship can also be assumed for the paint application further inside the cave.’ The dated dots and patches of paint were applied by humans and could not have been created by accident. Since they were applied deep inside the sinter curtains or at a height that could only be reached by climbing, they are deliberate actions.
Professor Dr. Gerd-Christian Weniger
Department of Prehistoric Archaeology at the University of Cologne
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