Thursday, June 14, 2012

Were Neanderthals Earliest Artists?

Detail from the El Castillo Cave in Spain.

The unexpected old age of some European cave paintings raise the possibility that Neanderthals rather than Homo sapiens were the earliest painters ~ either that, or humans began painting earlier than previously thought.
“It would not be surprising if the Neanderthals were indeed Europe’s first cave artists,” says João Zilhão, an archaeologist at Spain’s University of Barcelona.
According to
Researchers led by Zilhão and Alistair Pike of the United Kingdom’s University of Bristol measured the ages of 50 paintings in 11 Spanish caves. The art, considered evidence of sophisticated symbolic thinking, has traditionally been attributed to modern humans, who reached Europe about 40,000 years ago. 
Traditional methods of dating cave paintings, however, are relatively clumsy. Even the previous best technique — carbon dating, or translating amounts of carbon molecule decay into measurements of passing time — couldn’t discern differences of a few thousand years. 
Instead of carbon, Pike and João Zilhão’s team calibrated their molecular clocks by studying mineral deposits that form naturally on cave surfaces, including paintings. The thicker the deposits, the older the painting. And as the reseachers describe in a June 14 Science paper, some of the paintings are very old indeed.
 “What’s really exciting about this possibility,” said Pike, “is that anyone, because it’s open to the public, could walk into El Castillo cave and see a Neanderthal hand on the wall.”

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