Earliest Cultures

A culture is a way of thinking and living established by a group of people and transmitted from one generation to the next. It is, in other words, the basis of communal life. A culture’s collective values are expressed in its arts, writing, customs, and intellectual pursuits. The ability of a culture to express itself well, especially in writing, and to organize itself thoroughly, as a social, economic, and political entity, distinguishes it as a civilization. It is important to note, however, that some aspects of civilizations predate writing – monumental architecture and urban organization, for example. Furthermore, occasional civilizations, such as that of the Inca, never developed writing.

Just when the earliest cultures took form, and then subsequently transformed themselves into civilizations, is a matter of some conjecture among anthropologists, scientists who study humankind’s institutions and beliefs from the earliest times. The first historical evidence of a culture coming into being can be found in the artifacts of the earliest homo sapiens (“the one who knows”). About 35,000 years ago, the hominid species homo sapiens, which had come into being about 200,000 BCE, probably in Africa, began to assert itself in the forests and plains of Europe, gradually supplanting the Neanderthal homo erectus who had roamed the same areas for the previous hundred thousand years.

Both homo sapiens and homo erectus were toolmakers, as even our earliest ancestors seem to have been. They both cooked with fire, wore skins as clothing, and used tools. They evidently buried their dead in ritual ceremonies, which provide the earliest indications of religious beliefs and practices. These activities suggest the transmission of knowledge and patterns of social behavior from one generation to the next. But between 35,000-10,000 BCE – the last part of the Paleolithic, or Old Stone Age, when homo sapiens became more dominant and the Neanderthal line died out – the first objects that can be considered works of art began to appear, objects that seem to express the values and beliefs of the Paleolithic people. The Paleolithic period thus represents the very earliest cultural era.

Paleolithic Period

The Paleolithic period corresponds to the geological Pleistocene era, or Ice Age. Periodically, glaciers moved south over the European and Asian continents, forcing the inhabitants of the areas to move south, around the Mediterranean and into Africa. These people lived nomadic lives, following the animal herds (bison, mammoths, reindeer, and wild horses were abundant) on which they depended for food.

Cave Paintings

What is known of Paleolithic life derives largely from paintings found in cases, particularly in the Franco-Cantabrian area of southern France and northern Spain. The most famous prehistoric wall paintings are those at Lascaux, France, which were created between ca. 15,000-10,000 BCE. The Lascaux paintings are quite naturalistic. Many of the animals – bison, mammoths, reindeer, boars, wolves, and horses – gracefully jump, run, and romp, conveying a remarkable sense of animation. Painting is done in blacks, browns, reds, and yellows, with most of the pigments used of mineral oxides, with deeper black from burned bones.

How and why were these paintings created? The paintings at Lascaux and Vallon-Pont-d’Arc, in the Ardèche region of southern France, are located deep within the caves and are often very hard to reach. There is no evidence of human habitation where the paintings are located – instead, people seem to have lived at or near the entrances to the caves, where natural light was available. It is thought that the artists worked by the light of oil lamps. One theory holds that by creating these animals in paint, deep within the caves, the artists may have hoped that more animals would actually be born. Associated with this theory is the possibility that the superimposing, or layering, of animals was intended to show them mating.

Case Study: Chauvet

On a cold December afternoon in 1994, Jean-Marie Chauvet and two friends were exploring the caves in the steep cliffs along the Ardèche River gorge in southern France. After descending into a series of narrow passages, they entered a large chamber. There, beams from their headlamps lit up a group of drawings that would astonish the three exploders – and the world.

Since the late 19th century, we have known that prehistoric peoples, who lived before the time of recorded history, drew on the walls of cases. Twenty-seven such caves had already been discovered in the cliffs along the 17 miles of the Ardèche gorge. But the cave found by Chauvet and his friends transformed our thinking about prehistoric peoples. Where previously discovered cave paintings had appeared to modern eyes as childlike, this cave contained drawings comparable to those a contemporary artist might have done. We can only speculate that other comparable artworks were produced in prehistoric times but have not survived, perhaps because they were made of wood or other perishable materials. It is even possible that art may have been made earlier than 30,000 years ago, perhaps as people began to inhabit the Near East, between 90,000-100,000 years ago.

At first, during the Paleolithic era, the cultures of the world sustained themselves on game and wild plants. The cultures were small, scattered, and nomadic, though evidence suggests some interaction among the various groups. The cave paintings at Chauvet suggest that, as early as 30,000 years ago, the Ardèche gorge was a center of culture, a focal point of group living in which the values of a community find expression. There were others like it. In northern Spain, the first documented cave was discovered in 1879 at Altamira. In the Dordogne region of southern France to the west of the Ardèche, schoolchildren discovered the famous Lascaux cave in 1940 when their dog disappeared down a hole. And in 1991, along the French Mediterranean coast, a diver discovered the entrance to the beautifully decorated Cosquer Cave below the waterline near Marseille.

Ever since cave paintings were first discovered, scholars have marveled at the skill of the people who produced them, but we have been equally fascinated by their very existence. Why were these paintings made? Most scholars believe that they possessed some sort of agency – that is, they were created to exert some power or authority over the world of those who came into contact with them. Until recently, it was generally accepted that such works were associated with the hunt. Perhaps the hunter, seeking game in times of scarcity, hoped to conjure it up by depicting it on cave walls. Or perhaps such drawings were magic charms meant to ensure a successful hunt. But at Chauvet, fully 60 percent of the animals painted on its walls were never, or rarely, hunted – such animals as lions, rhinoceroses, bears, panthers, and woolly mammoths. One drawing depicts two rhinoceroses fighting horn-to=horn beneath four horses that appear to be looking on.

What role, then, did these drawings play in the daily lives of the people who created them? The caves may have served as some sort of ritual space. A ritual is a rite or ceremony habitually practiced by a group, often in religious or quasi-religious contexts. The caves, for instance, might be understood as gateways to the underworld and death, as symbols of the womb and birth, or as pathways to the world of drams experience in the dark of night, and rites connected with such passage might have been conducted in them. The general arrangement of the animals in the paintings by species or gender, often in distinct chambers of the caves, suggests to some that the paintings may have served as lunar calendars for predicting the seasonal migration of the animals. Whatever the case, surviving human footprints indicate that these caves were ritual gathering places and in some way were intended to serve human good.

At Chauvet, the use of color suggests that the paintings served some sacred or symbolic function. For instance, almost all of the paintings near the entrance to the cave are painted with natural red pigments derived from ores rich in iron oxide. Deeper in the cave, in areas more difficult to reach, the vast majority of the animals are painted in black pigments derived from ores rich in manganese dioxide. This shift in color appears to be intentional, but we can only guess at its meaning.

The skillfully drawn images at Chauvet raise even more important questions. The artists seem to have understood and practiced a kind of illusionism – that is, they were able to convey a sense of three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface. And yet these cave paintings, rendered over 30,000 years ago, predate other cave paintings by at least 10,000 years, and in some cases by 20,000 years.

Ritual and Religion

Venus of Willdendorf
ca. 25,000-20,000 BCE; discovered in Austria. This sculpture is the most famous of several extant female figurines thought to be associated with prehistoric beliefs about fertility or beauty. Interestingly, most of the sculptures depicting the human form that have been discovered from the Paleolithic era across continents are female, leading some scholars to theorize that prehistoric tribes believed the creator of the world to be a feminine deity.

Unlike much of the art created in later eras, prehistoric art is thought to be related to ritual, linked with prayer to placate the powers of nature. In a form of sympathetic magic, power could be gained over elements of nature. For example, the theory that hunting rituals were performed in the caves to gain control over the animals depicted there is strongly supported not only by the paintings of spears on the animals, but also by actual spearheads found driven into some of the painted animals, which are shown to bleed as a result of their injuries. Thus, in order to ensure a successful hunt, the animal may have been killed in effigy before the hunt.


Art, religion, and ritual were bound together as images, words, and physical movement were combined to achieve success in the hunt. Religion and ritual were critically important for prehistoric cultures in which some measure of control over nature was necessary for survival.

Examples of Paleolithic Cave Art

1. Blombos, South Africa (70,000 BCE):

Oldest known art by humans

Archaeologists have made an incredible finding of a human drawing that dates back more than 70,000 years, making it the oldest human drawing ever discovered.

The finding, published in Nature, was made in Blombos Cave, which is located on the southern coast of South Africa. The research was led by Professor Christopher Henshilwood from the University of Bergen in Norway. It’s thought this cave was used temporarily by hunter-gatherers for stays of a week or two long ago.

The “drawing” consisted of a cross-hatched pattern made of six lines crossed with three lines on a silcrete flake. As such, it was described as a Stone Age “hashtag”. It looks like the pattern was originally much larger, as the lines abruptly end, and may have been more complex. The team thinks it was made with a pointed ochre crayon, with a tip 1 to 3 millimeters wide.

“It is definitely an abstract design and it almost certainly had some meaning to the maker,” Professor Henshilwood said. “It is also evidence of the ability of early humans to store information outside of the human brain.”

This particular cave plays host to a number of human artifacts dating back to between 70,000 and 100,000 years. This includes a “tool kit” with two shells inside, filled with an ochre-rich substance similar to a red paint, which proves our ancestors knew how to make paint up to 100,000 years ago.

In their paper, the researchers said this discovery “pre-dates the earliest previously known abstract and figurative drawings by at least 30,000 years.” They used chemical and microscopic analyses to confirm that it had been created by a human hand, demonstrating that Homo sapiens in southern Africa were behaviourally modern.

“The discovery… demonstrates that drawing was part of the behavioral repertoire of populations of early Homo sapiens in southern Africa,” the authors wrote. “It demonstrates their ability to apply similar graphic designs on various media using different techniques.”

Other discoveries at Blombos Cave had shown that humans there could produce paint (and use a brush to paint), engrave abstract designs, and create shell beads. This latest discovery was described as a “fourth leg to the table” by Professor Henshilwood, proving they had the ability to draw.

It’s a very exciting find, and one that gives us a fascinating insight into the capabilities of early humans. We may never know the exact meaning of this drawing but we do know it was, to someone at least, a very primitive work of art.

2. Sulawesi Cave, Indonesia (43,500 BCE):

Oldest known depiction of an animal

The world’s oldest known figurative artwork has been discovered in a cave in Indonesia — an endearing image of a warty pig. Archaeologists working on the site on the island of Sulawesi said the cave art was at least 45,500 years old. It is also thought to be the oldest surviving image of an animal. Painted using red ocher pigment, the animal appears to be observing a fight or social interaction between two other warty pigs. This region is home to many intriguing limestone caves where other discoveries have been made. Cave art depicting a hunting scene dating to 43,900 years ago was also found in Sulawesi in late 2019. The same team of archaeologists in 2014 found human hand stencils, which were dated to 40,000 years ago.

Previously, the oldest known cave art was thought to have first appeared in Europe 40,000 years ago, showcasing abstract symbols. By 35,000 years ago, the art became more sophisticated, showing horses and other animals. These latest finds in Indonesia have challenged a long-standing belief that artistic expression — and the cognitive leap that may have accompanied it — began in Europe. The cave paintings in Indonesia are shedding new light on the early story of humanity. Study coauthor Maxime Aubert, an archaeologist and associate professor at Griffith University in Australia who specializes in the dating of rock art, said that view was “Eurocentric.” It’s now thought that the capability to create figurative art — that references the real world — either emerged before Homo sapiens migrated out of Africa and headed for Europe and Asia more than 60,000 years ago or that it emerged more than once as humans spread around the globe.

While abstract art has been found in Africa dating back to 77,000 years ago, no figurative art older than those found on sites in Europe and Indonesia has been discovered on the African continent, Aubert said. One reason for that could be because it’s particularly difficult to date cave art, Aubert explained. However, rock art made in limestone caves can sometimes be dated by measuring the radioactive decay of elements like uranium within the calcium carbonate deposits — sometime called cave popcorn — that form naturally on the cave surface. This was the case at the Leang Tedongnge site in southern Sulawesi, where a small cave popcorn had formed on the rear foot of the pig figure after it had been painted. The date indicates the scene had been painted prior to 45,500 years ago, Aubert said, and the cave art could be much older. A second Sulawesi warty pig image, from another cave in the region, was dated to at least 32,000 years ago using the same method in the study that published in the journal Science Advances on Wednesday.

The team expects future research in eastern Indonesia will lead to the discovery of much older rock art and other archaeological evidence, dating back at least 65,000 years. “We have found and documented many rock art images in Sulawesi that still await scientific dating. We expect the early rock art of this island to yield even more significant discoveries,” said study coauthor and Indonesian rock art expert Adhi Agus Oktaviana, a doctoral student at Griffith University.

The researchers were confident the image was of a warty pig, which is shown in profile and filled in with irregular patterns of painted lines and dashes, because of the presence of spiky head crests and facial warts — the two conspicuous, hornlike protusions in the upper snout area. The pig painted on the ceiling of the cave measures 187 centimeters (6 feet) in length and 110 centimeters (3.6 feet) in height and is a red or mulberry color — the prehistoric artists used iron-rich rock as a pigment and could have used two colors. The researchers said there are three other pigs in the scene.

Warty pigs are still common in Indonesia and have since been domesticated. Not much is known about the people who made the art, Aubert said. Research has indicated that Homo sapiens arrived in Southeast Asia between 60,000 and 70,000 years ago. While the researchers said they are unable to definitively conclude that the artwork is the handiwork of cognitively modern humans, that was the most likely explanation. “Our species must have crossed through Wallacea by watercraft in order to reach Australia by at least 65,000 years ago,” said Aubert, referring to the region between continental Asia and Australia.“However, the Wallacean islands are poorly explored, and presently the earliest excavated archaeological evidence from this region is much younger in age.” Nonfigurative artwork has been attributed to other early humans, with rock art found in Spain believed to be the handiwork of Neanderthals — who overlapped with Homo sapiens for about 30,000 years before disappearing 40,000 years ago. However, this finding has been contested.

The depiction of the warty pig is also older than other types of prehistoric artwork found in Europe such as the “Lion-man,” a figurine of a lion-headed human, and a “Venus figurine” carved from mammoth ivory, both found in Germany and thought to be around 40,000 years old. It’s also more ancient than a recent find on another Indonesian island — an image of cattle that was found in a cave in Borneo. “This discovery underlines the remarkable antiquity of Indonesia’s rock art and its great significance for understanding the deep-time history of art and its role in humanity’s early story,” said study coauthor Adam Brumm, a professor at Griffith’s Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution.

3. Leang Bulu’ Sipong, Indonesia (41,900 BCE):

First known example of therianthropes

Is this the oldest story ever recorded?

At this very moment, you’re a participant in one of the things that makes us human: the telling and consumption of stories. It’s impossible to say when our species began telling each other stories—or when we first evolved the ability to use language to communicate not only simple, practical concepts but to share vivid accounts of events real or imagined. But by 43,900 years ago, people on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi had started painting some of their stories in images on cave walls.

A newly discovered painting in a remote cave depicts a hunting scene, and it’s the oldest story that has been recorded. And if Griffith University archaeologist Maxime Aubert and his colleagues are right, it could also be the first record of spiritual belief—and our first insight into what the makers of cave art were thinking.

Across a 4.5 meter (14.8 foot) section of rock wall, 3 meters (9.8 feet) above the floor of a hard-to-reach upper chamber of a site called Liang Bulu’Sipong 4, wild pigs and dwarf buffalo called anoa face off against a group of strangely tiny hunters in monochrome dark red. A dark red hand stencil adorns the left end of the mural, almost like an ancient artist’s signature. Through an opening in the northeast wall of the cave, sunlight spills in to illuminate the scene.

Liang Bulu’Sipong 4 is a living cave, still being reshaped by flowing water, and layers of rock have begun to grow over the painting in spots. The minerals that form those layers include small traces of uranium, which over time decays into thorium-230. Unlike the uranium, the thorium isn’t water-soluble and can only get into the rock via decay. By measuring the ratio of uranium-234 to thorium-230 in the rock, archaeologists can tell how recently the rock layer formed.

The deposits have been slowly growing over the hunting mural for at least 49,300 years, which means the painting itself may be even older than that. That makes the Liang Bulu’Sipong 4 mural the oldest record (that we know of) of an actual story. At first glance, it seems to suggest a game drive, in which people flush animals from cover and drive them toward a line of hunters with spears or other weapons. If Aubert and his colleagues are right about that, it means that somebody 44,000 years ago created a firsthand record of how they made a living.

But the oldest story ever recorded by human hands may be something more than a hunting record. “Some, or all, aspects of this imagery may not pertain to human experiences in the real world,” wrote Aubert and his colleagues. Up close, the tiny hunters don’t look quite human; many of them have strangely elongated faces, more like animal muzzles or snouts. One has a tail, and another appears to have a beak.

The figures could represent human hunters clad in skins or masks. Aubert and his colleagues, however, say they look more like therianthropes: human-animal hybrids that show up in cultures around the world, including in 15,500-year-old paintings in the Lascaux caves of France and a 40,000-year-old carved figure from Germany.

Whether they’re human, animal, or a bit of both, the hunters are facing prey animals of monstrous or mythological proportions. In real life, an anoa stands about 100cm (39.4 inches) tall, and an Indonesian wild pig stands only 60cm (23.6 inches) tall. On the wall of Liang Bulu’Sipong 4, though, the creatures loom many times larger than the hunters arrayed against them. It looks like a scene out of a legend, not a dry record of another day’s hunting.

And its presence suggests that Liang Bulu’Sipong 4 may have been a sacred, or at least important, place to the people who once lived in the area. Archaeologists found no trace of the usual debris of human life—stone tools, discarded bones, and cooking fires—anywhere in the cave or in the much larger chamber beneath it. That’s no wonder: Liang Bulu’Sipong 4 is set in a cliff 20 meters above the valley floor, and one doesn’t simply walk in.

“Accessing it requires climbing, and this is not an occupation site,” Aubert told Ars. “So people were going in there for another reason.”

4. Nerja, Spain (40,000 BCE):

Oldest known art by Neanderthals

Cave paintings in Malaga, Spain, could be the oldest yet found – and the first to have been created by Neanderthals.

Looking oddly akin to the DNA double helix, the images in fact depict the seals that the locals would have eaten, says José Luis Sanchidrián at the University of Cordoba, Spain. They have “no parallel in Palaeolithic art”, he adds. His team say that charcoal remains found beside six of the paintings – preserved in Spain’s Nerja caves – have been radiocarbon dated to between 43,500 and 42,300 years old.

That suggests the paintings may be substantially older than the 30,000-year-old Chauvet cave paintings in southeast France, thought to be the earliest example of Palaeolithic cave art.

The next step is to date the paint pigments. If they are confirmed as being of similar age, this raises the real possibility that the paintings were the handiwork of Neanderthals – an “academic bombshell”, says Sanchidrián, because all other cave paintings are thought to have been produced by modern humans.

Neanderthals are in the frame for the paintings since they are thought to have remained in the south and west of the Iberian peninsula until approximately 37,000 years ago – 5000 years after they had been replaced or assimilated by modern humans elsewhere in their European heartland.

Until recently, Neanderthals were thought to have been incapable of creating artistic works. That picture is changing thanks to the discovery of a number of decorated stone and shell objects – although no permanent cave art has previously been attributed to our extinct cousins.

Now some researchers think that Neanderthals had the same capabilities for symbolism, imagination and creativity as modern humans.

The finding “is potentially fascinating”, says Paul Pettitt at the University of Sheffield, UK. He cautions that the dating of cave art is fraught with potential problems, though, and says that clarification of the paintings’ age is vital.

“Even some sites we think we understand very well such as the Grotte Chauvet in France are very problematic in terms of how old they are,” says Pettitt.

If the age is confirmed, Pettitt suggests that the cave paintings could still have been the work of modern humans. “We can’t be absolutely sure that Homo sapiens were not down there in the south of Spain at this time,” he says.

Sanchidrián does not rule out the possibility that the paintings were made by early Homo sapiens but says that this theory is “much more hypothetical” than the idea that Neanderthals were behind them.

Who were the Neanderthals?

If you still think Neanderthals were dull-witted brutes, you simply aren’t woke. In 1856, laborers in a limestone quarry in Germany’s Neander Valley unearthed a skull cap that belonged to our closest evolutionary ancestor, and from the start we asserted our intellectual superiority over our thick-skulled cousins. To this day, the hunched-over, doltish caveman stereotype persists, an image that likely stems from Marcellin Boule’s reconstruction of a mostly complete, geriatric Neanderthal skeleton discovered 110 years ago in France. But we were wrong about Neanderthals’ wit, and over the years the pile of evidence has grown from a molehill and into to a mountain. And this week, Chris Standish, an archaeologist at the University of Southampton, and colleagues published a study further bolstering the case for Neanderthal smarts. Using a technique called uranium-thorium dating, they’ve shown that Neanderthals—not humans—are the creative force behind the world’s oldest cave paintings. Further, they say it’s solid evidence that creative expression and symbolic thinking weren’t exclusive to modern humans.

The international team of researchers took more than 60 samples of carbonate from three cave sites in Spain: La Pasiega, Maltravieso and Ardales. All of these caves contained ochre or black paintings of animals, geometric shapes, engravings and hand stencils. It was thought that modern humans tagged all the caves in Europe some 35,000 years, a point in time that marked a “creative explosion”—sometimes attributed to a brain mutation—that gave rise to art, spirituality and more complex social interactions. Recent technological advancements have made it easier to date cave art using the uranium-thorium method. It’s a technique that’s typically used to date calcium carbonate materials without damaging the target—although a small sample of the rock is required. Using this method, scientists can obtain a minimum or maximum age for the art they are testing. The date is determined by measuring the ratio of uranium to thorium, which changes over time as a result of radioactive decay. To get a minimum age, archaeologists scrape samples of calcite crusts—known as cave popcorn—that form over the top of drawings. If you get the age of the crusts, anything underneath them has got to be older. Their samples revealed that these paintings in Spain had to be at least 64,000 years old—roughly 20,000 years before modern humans arrived in Europe. This stretches back the timeline even further back than a similar study from 2011. “Our results show that the paintings we dated are, by far, the oldest known cave art in the world, and were created at least 20,000 years before modern humans arrived in Europe from Africa – therefore they must have been painted by Neanderthals,” Standish said in a news release. The team published its findings Thursday in the journal ScienceWe Didn’t Know Better Than Neanderthals Not only does this latest study push back the dateline for artistry in European caves, it suggests Neanderthals were symbolic thinkers. The hand stencils appear to have been deliberately placed in relation to natural features of the cave. Picking a location required planning, acquiring and mixing pigments and a light source to work in the cave. In other words, a Neanderthal didn’t just trip and leave a handprint; this was a very deliberate process. Cave paintings have been found across a large region and timeframe, which suggests a long tradition of artistry. In another study, published inScience Advances, scientists dated punctured and colored marine shells to a date significantly earlier than the arrival of modern humans in Europe. Found in a different Spainish cave, these shells were determined to be roughly 115,000 years old. The decorated artifacts were more proof of Neanderthals’ symbolic thinking abilities.


Perforated shells found in sediments in Cueva de los Aviones and date to between 115,000 and 120,000 years. (Credit: J. Zilhão) Now that we’ve absorbed these latest revelations, let’s take a moment to recap some of the things we now know about Neanderthal intelligence. In 1957, we discovered that Neanderthals buried their dead—fossilized pollen indicated they might have been buried with flowers. The eight adults and two who infants were discovered in northern Iraq also showed signs that their wounds had been tended to—another notch for Neanderthal intelligence. Other recent findings suggest Neanderthals were proficient tool-builders, may have communicated in song, wore jewelry and even dabbled in medicine and dentistry. They weren’t dimwits; after all, modern humans had sex with Neanderthals. With all we know about Neanderthal intelligence, the theory that modern humans outlived their forebears because we were more cunning sort of loses steam. Rather, we may have just been lucky. Last year, Stanford University evolutionary biologist Oren Kolodny published a paper in Nature Communications that concluded that population dynamics and favorable timing are the reason modern humans outlasted Neanderthals (i.e. it was luck, not skill). For a glimpse of what life would be like if Neanderthals were still around, those classic Geico “caveman” commercials might not be too far off the mark.

5. El Castillo, Spain (38,800 BCE)

Prehistoric dots and crimson hand stencils on Spanish cave walls are now the world’s oldest known cave art, according to new dating results—perhaps the best evidence yet that Neanderthals were Earth’s first cave painters.

If that’s the case, the discovery narrows the cultural distance between us and Neanderthals—and fuels the argument, at least for one scientist, that the heavy-browed humans were not a separate species but only another race.

Of the 11 subterranean sites the team studied along northern Spain‘s Cantabrian Sea coast, the cave called El Castillo had the oldest paintings—the oldest being a simple red disk.

At more than 40,800 years old, “this is currently Europe’s oldest dated art by at least 4,000 years,” said the study’s lead author Alistair Pike, an archaeologist at the University of Bristol in the U.K.

If the new dates are correct, they also could make the El Castillo art the oldest known well-dated cave paintings in the world—a title previously held by France‘s Chauvet cave paintings, believed to be at least 37,000 years old.

Pike’s team teased out the new dates using a method that relies on known rates of decay in uranium—specifically uranium in calcium deposits that had formed over the paint. The mineral-based paint itself couldn’t be dated, because it contains neither uranium nor the carbon needed for radiocarbon dating.

In several cases, the Spanish artwork proved older than previously estimated based on indirect methods, such as stylistic comparisons with paintings at better dated sites, according to the study, published today by the journal Science.

The new dates raise the possibility that some of the paintings could have been made by Neanderthals, who are thought to have lived in Europe until about 30,000 or 40,000 years ago. Modern humans are believed to have also been in the area at the time, arriving about 41,500 years ago.

The findings wouldn’t be the first potential evidence of Neanderthal cave art.

Earlier this year, archeologists found what they consider to be 42,000-year-old Neanderthal cave paintings in Málaga, Spain. But that evidence is controversial, according to Pike.

“They dated some charcoal from the floor of the cave, and then they extrapolated it” to the paintings, Pike said.

“All that shows is that someone lit a fire in the cave 42,000 years ago, but they’ve linked it to the paintings. And we think that’s absolutely mad.”

Cave-art expert Michel Lorblanchet doesn’t think Pike’s proof is exactly ironclad either. More evidence, he said, would be needed to firmly establish that some of the Spanish cave paintings were products of Neanderthal minds.

“But to date a painting around 40,000 [years ago] does not prove that it was made by Neanderthals.”

Study leader Pike, though, pointed out that the new dates are minimum ages only.

“The calcite could have formed many thousands of years after the art was painted,” he said. “But I agree we will need to date more paintings to prove conclusively these were done by Neanderthals, and we are currently sampling more of the art to see … I think in the next few years we’ll actually prove this.”

Many scientists had long doubted whether Neanderthals were capable of producing symbolic art.

But that’s begun to change in recent years, thanks in part to the discovery of pigments, tiny art objects, and what might be body paint at Neanderthal sites, according to Paul Bahn, a cave art expert and a member of the Archaeological Institute of America.

“There remains a rump of blinkered scholars who still consider Neanderthals to be brutish savages, little better than animals, but fortunately they are a dwindling minority,” Bahn, who was not involved in the study, said in an email.

“I think almost all objective scholars now fully accept Neanderthal art.”

Study co-author João Zilhão goes a step further, suggesting that, if Neanderthals were responsible for some of the Spanish cave art, then perhaps there’s no real distinction between them and modern humans.

“It adds to the evidence … that Neanderthals were a European racial variant of Homo sapiens, not a distinct species,” said Zilhão, of the University of Barcelona.

“If you look at the [modern human] trajectory towards art, we find shell beads, bits of ochre, and ostrich shells carved with geometric designs from about 70,000 to 100,000 years ago” in Africa, he said.

Now, at European sites, “we see that Neanderthals are following the same trajectory. We see shell beads, carved sculptures, and geometric designs on bits of bone. And now we see what might be Neanderthal art.”

Though the oldest paintings in the study were stylistically simple disks and hand stencils, the caves also feature figurative art—for example, of horses and bison—that dates to after the fall of the Neanderthals.

“It is possible that dots and other non-figurative motifs were created by Neanderthals and [pictures of] animals by Homo sapiens,” said study team member and cave art expert Paul Pettitt of the U.K.’s University of Sheffield.

But “it needn’t imply any mental differences between the two. If you draw an animal and I draw several dots, there are no underlying differences in our cognition.”

Those supposed differences—and now these paintings—are at the heart of a debate over what it means to be human, or at least Homo sapiens.

“There’s a theory that it was an acceleration of cultural innovations that allowed humans to move into a territory that was occupied by Neanderthals,” study leader Pike said.

For modern humans, “cave paintings may have been a part of this cultural package, as were musical instruments and sculptures of animals and humans.”

Our species, some scientists have argued, experienced a “Great Leap Forward,” or “upper Paleolithic revolution,” some 35,000 years ago.

According to this idea, something—perhaps a genetic mutation or the development of language—triggered a technological and artistic explosion in Homo sapiens.

But, study co-author Zilhão said, the new evidence that Neanderthals could produce art “should lead scholars to abandon Great Leap Forward ideas.

“It suggests that a lengthy period of geometric or abstract art … in both Africa and Europe, preceded the emergence of figurative representations. If anything, it argues for a middle Paleolithic revolution, not an upper Paleolithic revolution.”

6. Pettakere Cave, Indonesia (38,000 BCE)

Twenty-six red-and-white handprints are plastered across the roof of the Leang Petta Kere cave in the Bantimurung subdistrict of Maros, South Sulawesi. At its center is a painting of a red boar, spanning half a meter in length. Apparently, the cave’s previous inhabitants expected a pretty big meal to keep everyone fed.

“This is a relic of the Middle Stone Age people, hunter-gatherers who lived here around 5,000 BCE,” says Lahab, an official from the Makassar Center for Cultural and Heritage Preservation, at the Leang-Leang Prehistoric Park.

In the native dialect, “leang” means “cave,” “petta” means “nobility,” and “kere” is “sacred”: so Noble, Sacred Cave.

Leang Petta Kere is one of about a hundred caves that have been identified by the Makassar Center for Cultural and Heritage Preservation as once being home to hunter-gatherers.

Visiting this ancient site, 45 meters above sea level and a 30-meter climb up a ladder, feels surreal, almost like looking through a window into the life of prehistoric men.

At the entrance to the cave forms a sort of antechamber, and it is here where the palm prints are found. “The palm was believed to repel, so that evil forces and wild animals wouldn’t enter,” Lahab says.

The prints themselves are a dirty white, like the rest of the cave walls, and are outlined by a red halo. It’s believed that the people who created the prints put their hands up against the wall and spit chewed-up foliage to create the outlines.

Some of the prints are red, supposedly created by dipping the hand in water tinted with the chewed-up leaves and stamping them on the wall.

“Researchers still don’t know what kind of leaves were used. In another cave, not in this region, black handprints have been found. Those are thought to have come from a later period than these ones,” Lahab says.

Some handprints have only four fingers and no thumb — “a sign that the person was mourning. They cut off one finger every time an elder of the group died,” Lahab says.

There are dozens of other smaller niches, all connected to one another and forming a network of resting places. Inside, the cave protected the prehistoric humans from the scorching sun. The temperature inside remains a pleasant 27 degrees Celsius throughout the day.

“This cave was occupied by several different groups. One group consisted of 30 to 35 people,” Lahab says.

Archaeologists have found artifacts such as flint blades and stone arrowheads. As hunter-gatherers, the cave people had a mountain of kitchen waste, a dump for the bones and shells of the animals they are. These fossilized remains are scattered at the mouth of a second cave, called Leang Pettae.

The latter was the first cave to be studied from among the hundred or so in the Maros Karst-Pangkep region. Here, five handprints were found along with a smaller image of a boar impaled with a spear. One of the five palms is thought to belong to a woman, Lahab says.

The exploration of the cave began in 1950 by Dutch archaeologists, who stumbled upon the caves that locals had been using to house their livestock.

Finding the caves today is easy. The region boasts the world’s longest limestone mountain range, or karst landscape, and has caves scattered everywhere.

The local residents have for years used these caves.

“When I was little the caves were a place to keep our cattle. Leang-Leang Prehistoric Park was once a rice field that also belonged to the locals. I’ve worked here as a caretaker since 1985, after it was designated a cultural heritage park,” says the 51-year-old Lahab.

A resident of Tompok Balang village in Bantimurung subdistrict, Lahab says the tradition of making handprints is still carried out by local residents, notably when the first beam of a new house is erected.

A priest dips his hand in rice flour and stamps his print on the beam, with the owner of the housefollowing suit.

“This tradition is called ambedak, or applying face powder. The handprint fades away quickly because they only use rice flour,” Lahab says.

Large chunks of limestone and andesite, a volcanic rock, are scattered irregularly around Leang-Leang Prehistoric Park. But a closer look reveals that they are laid out almost like the rocks of Stonehenge in England.

“Many foreign tourists from Britain and Australia are interested in the andesite stones. Since I was little, the stones have been laid out like this; no one dared move them,” Lahab says.

7. Altamira, Spain (35,000 BCE):

First cave art discovered by modern man

Crouching among the ancient art. (S.RECD/Government of Cantabria)
I gasped at my first glimpse of a cave painting: a crude red outline of a deer with one wild circle for an eye. Its iron pigments blazed under the lamplight. The illusion of a breastbone emerged, ingeniously, out of a hump in the limestone wall. After a while, a cave becomes a long black tunnel of sensory deprivation; the sight of this tender image jolted my breath back to life.

“Can you tell you’re in a sacred place?” asked Marcos Garcia Diez, the archaeologist who had agreed to show me some of the most breathtaking rock art ever created. “This cave is like a church and that’s why ancient people returned, returned, returned here for thousands of years.”

Jutting from the base of a mountain about 85km west of Bilbao, El Castillo is one of the world’s most celebrated rock art temples. When Homo sapiens first began their northward migration from Africa to Europe around 40,000 years ago, some joined the Neanderthals here in Cantabria, a region that is home to at least 40 painted caves, including El Castillo. So magnificent are the province’s primordial masterpieces that when Picasso visited, he reportedly declared, “We have learned nothing in 12,000 years.”

The entrance to El Castillo cave. (S.RECD/Government of Cantabria)

Unlike France, which has barred the public from entering its greatest cave art sites, Lascaux and Chauvet, Spain’s culture ministry has kept El Castillo open to the public, allowing up to 260 visitors per day. Officials even recently opened the nearby Altamira cave, the so-called “Sistine Chapel of rock art”, to five visitors per week through February 2015.

Incredibly, El Castillo’s deer painting, along with renderings of archetypal bison, horned ibex and extinct cows, were merely a prelude to my ultimate goal: to see, deep within the cave, an extraordinary smudge of calcite-encrusted red paint – by all accounts, a treasure found nowhere else on the globe.

Two years ago, Diez and a team of archaeologists discovered that the smudge – a red disc painted in a corridor known as the “Panel of Hands” – was much older than previously realised. In a 2012 study published in the journal Science, they revealed that the painting was at least 40,800 years old – making it the earliest-known cave painting on Earth.

Ancient paintings of hands. (Marcos Garcia Diez)

Diez and his colleagues argued that the painting was so old, in fact, that it might predate modern man’s arrival in this part of the world, and thus may actually be the work of a Neanderthal. With more research, Diez thinks they will soon discover even older paintings.

The revelations did not come without controversy, but it wasn’t the methodology that experts quarrelled with. Many agree that the standard practice of radiocarbon dating is limited at best; it applies only to charcoal works and loses reliability after about 35,000 years. To go back further, into the age of Neanderthals, Diez and his colleagues borrowed a technique from military science for dating the radioactive uranium that appears in calcite. They tested formations of the mineral that had grown atop paintings in 11 caves, assuming that whatever its age, the underlying paint had to be at least as old, and possibly much older. (The method proved so successful that other researchers used it to make another major discovery in October 2014: a 39,900-year-old handprint in Indonesia that is now considered the world’s second-oldest painting.)

What did cause contention was the suggestion that Neanderthals may have been responsible for the art – a divisive theory that threatens to disrupt decades of scholarship on the origins of human creativity. Scientists have long claimed that our thicker-skulled ancestors were not intelligent enough to make art. But today, a growing number of scholars argues that the characterization of Neanderthals as boneheaded beasts is an outdated, sapian-centric construction – even a kind of bigotry. As Gregory Curtis described in his book The Cave Painters, some view Neanderthals as “the very first victims of imperialism”.

None of this seemed of particular interest to Diez, however, as he led me deeper into the cave, guiding me through narrow verges and up muddy inclines. He thinks of himself as a “dirt archaeologist” – more interested in exploration than debate.

Yet Diez still enjoys asking impossible questions about the meaning of cave art. “Why do you think they painted so many of these?” he said, squatting beneath a rough but unmistakable sketch of a bison. Before I could answer, he explained how some ethnographers theorize that ancient hunters painted these prized sources of meat with the shamanistic belief that pictures could summon the animals. This “hunting magic” theory works a little like voodoo: representation as actualisation.

Detail of two hands. (S.RECD/Government of Cantabria)

While Diez forged ahead, I stopped at the Panel of Hands, the site of dozens of handprints stencilled in ochre. I held my palm up a few inches from one of the outlines. I wanted to press down upon it, as if to gain access to some ancestor who, 1,600 generations ago, also laid a hand against this stone.

When Diez turned back, he flashed his light on my hand, still mid-air. “That. What you’re doing right now,” he said. “That, I think, is the reason for the paintings.” As I looked at my palm still hovering over the handprint, I realised he was right.

It was the innate human impulse to connect to something bigger than oneself. The wall was more than a canvas, it was a threshold – “a being”, Diez said. In this view, the cave is a kind of Palaeolithic church, where paintings are scriptures and creativity is the measure of divinity.

“We’re close,” Diez said as we continued down the rocky chute. By now, it had taken us nearly three hours to walk – and often crawl – through the 1km-long labyrinth, and I sensed that we were circling back near the entrance.

Sure enough, a minute later, the hollow widened and Diez flashed his light onto a low, shadowy wall. There it was: the oldest-known painting in the world. Nothing more than a fist-sized red splotch.

“Is it everything you expected?” he asked.

I fumbled for an answer, but only more questions came to mind: Was this the work of history’s first artist? Did it represent the moment mankind transcended the animals?

The marking struck me as a kind of vanishing point: the furthest visible moment on the plane of human history. Yet as I stood before it, all of time seemed to melt into illusion, and I began to understand why we so often describe the ineffable with inadequacies like “spiritual” or “transcendent”. Sometimes we must simply surrender to the unfamiliar, to the limitations of our knowledge, perception and language.

So I replied, truthfully, “It’s so much more.”


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Storytelling Copyright © 2021 by Pamela Bond is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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