When the cave of Altamira was first discovered in Spain in 1880, it sparked a controversy over the capabilities of primitive humans. The caves had been essentially sealed for tens of thousands of years, and yet were covered in remarkably sophisticated paintings of people, animals and abstract shapes. Some people found it unthinkable that this kind work could have been accomplished by primitive humans, leading some skeptics to claim the paintings were a hoax. An recent examination of the nearby La Pasiega caves is proving those nay-sayers were half-right, but not for reasons they’d be happy to hear. New research has confirmed that the paintings were not made by early humans, because they must have been created by even earlier Neanderthals instead, 64,000 years ago.
Dated by decay
The paintings in La Pasiega, as well as similar caves found in Maltravieso and Ardales, were originally dated based on the decay of carbon 14 atoms. By measuring the amount of carbon-14 isotopes still found in organic matter and comparing that to the known rate of decay, or half-life, of these atoms, researchers can estimate how old an object is. This method is fairly reliable in some scenarios, but it does have its limitations. In this case, a significant issue is that after 50,000 years, so much carbon-14 has decayed that its hard to detect the remaining isotope in any given sample. Since the La Pasiega paintings are now known to be at least 64,000 years old, it’s easy to see how the previous attempts to arrive at an age ran into problems.
This latest investigation then dated the cave paintings using uranium-thorium dating. Rather than sample the paint directly, this method looks at the amount of uranium and thorium found in the carbonate that has built up over time at a given location. The amount of each product of the uranium’s radioactive decay can then provide an age for that speck of carbonate, which therefore provides the latest possible age of whatever the carbonate is sitting on. So by dating the carbonate that’s naturally accumulated on the paint, we now have a more credible age for the creation of the cave’s artwork.
Advanced cultural capabilities
The technique to date the cave paintings is obviously less surprising than the new estimated age of the paintings themselves. We’re confident that humans didn’t arrive in Spain, or any of Europe, before 40,000 years ago. So with these paintings firmly predating the arrival of Homo sapiens, it seems that our species’ only role in this artwork was discovering it. The only other candidates for their creation are Neanderthals, a species of hominid that seems more sophisticated with every new archaeological discovery we make.
This is a big jump in our understanding of Neanderthals’ cognition and culture. The steps required to develop paint as a tool, pick a location to paint, then represent images of the natural and abstract world represent a variety of achievements. Most importantly, recording images for their symbolic, rather than practical, value shows that Neanderthals were able to transmit their culture in a way we had previously thought to be the invention of humans.
This isn’t to say that humans weren’t culturally innovative. Artifacts estimated to be 70,000-years-old have been found in Africa, showing that Homo sapiens has long been a creative species as well. However, the Spanish cave paintings show that Neanderthals weren’t trailing far behind our species in their development. Researchers now want to investigate other European cave paintings in case they were made by Neanderthal hands as well.
My five-year-old asked: How did they make their paints?
The caves were only painted in reds and blacks. The black was from charcoal, most likely retrieved from a fire, and the red was made of pigments like ochre. The painters probably started by crushing the minerals into a fine powder, then moistening them with water or oil to make them spreadable on the stone walls of the cave.
Source: Neanderthals were artistic like modern humans, study indicates by Andrew White, Phys.org