Humans Have Been Making Art for a Lot Longer Than We Thought

By Sophie Bushwick | June 21, 2012 8:30 am

Panel of Hands
One of the prints in El Castillo Cave’s Panel of Hands
was created more than 37,300 years ago.

A new study has revealed that Spain’s El Castillo Cave contains the oldest known cave paintings in Europe, with a handprint dating back 37,300 years and a red circle that was daubed onto the wall at least 40,600 years ago.

Instead of testing the paint’s age, a team of British and Spanish researchers measured the age of the stone that had formed around the drawings. In a cave, mineral-rich water drips over the walls, eventually depositing stalactites, stalagmites, and the sheet-like formations called flowstone. Some prehistoric artists had painted over flowstone made out of the mineral calcite, and then water flowed over the paint and deposited even more calcite, leaving the drawings sandwiched between mineral layers. The researchers used uranium-thorium dating to accurately determine the age of the mineral layers and therefore the window when the art itself was created; unlike the similar, more conventional carbon-14 method, uranium-thorium dating gives accurate results without damaging the subject.

Corredor de los Puntos
Another set of paintings in El Castillo Cave, called
Corredor de los Puntos. A red disk like the ones shown here
was daubed on the cave wall over 40,600 years ago.

Because some of the paintings date back to the time when early modern humans were only beginning to settle the area, the researchers speculated that they may actually have been created by Neanderthals, which would make this the first known Neanderthal art. Whether the drawings were made by modern humans or Neanderthals, they do show that art history stretches back much farther than we previously realized.

[via Wired Science]

Images courtesy of Pedro Saura / Science

  • Sunny D

    How do you know these are paintings? How do you know that instead, in the case of the first photo, that humans didn’t have some brown materials on their hands for some reason, and became shortly fascinated with the fact that when they put their hands on the wall, the material imprinted and created an image of a hand? Does this means humans were making art?

  • Jean Gogolin

    @Sunny D The hand prints seem to be stencils, not imprints. If they were made by hands covered in brown material, the pattern would be of the hands, not of the space around the hands. Art? Who knows? I’d like to think so.

  • Gord

    Sunny wrote: “How do you know these are paintings?…became shortly fascinated with the fact that when they put their hands on the wall, the material imprinted and created an image of a hand…Does this mean humans were making art?”

    I think you just gave a perfect definition for “art” – a fascinating creation made by the human hand.

    This is not like finding a fossilized foot-print where an ancient ancestor walked randomly through some ash or mud. These didn’t occur by accident – someone was fascinated by the mark it left on the wall and tried it again and again. An image, created by the human hand, that intrigued and fascinated the creator and viewers ever since…how is that not art?

  • Sajanas

    @Sunny D
    Basically, because the hand prints are made not by having a dirty hand, but by placing ones hand on the cave and blowing pigment over it. The aboriginal Australians do it all the time, which is part of the reason why I never bought into the whole “Europeans started artistic expression” notion I’ve heard from time to time, since the Australians were isolated for 40, 50 thousand years… so clearly this technique has been around for a long, long time.

  • JazzZyx

    Am I the only one who sees an image of a human kneeling and bent forward in the collection of rocks beneath the red dots?

  • michael brady

    David Lewis-Williams has a fine book that describes what we may have been up deep in these caves at the dawn of modern humanity. The hand stencil may have been the result of shamans merging sacramentally with the wall of the cave which was regarded as a membrane between the physical world and the underworld. I highly recommend you read it all.

    The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art

    His follow on book with David Pearce proposes to explain the thought behind the monumental tombs, dolmens, and henges in the neolithic period. It too is well worth your time if this topic interests you.

    The Neolithic Mind: Consciousness, Cosmos and the Realm of the Gods

  • Finn.

    whenever I see cave paintings, I can’t help but think of modern graffiti. The same impulse drives a tagger that drove these ancient humans, and neither is less valid an artistic expression than the other. As an artist myself, seeing these images gives me a similar feeling to seeing a painting in person and imagining what the artist was thinking as they constructed their work.

  • Khlovia

    Gord: Beautiful definition.

    JazzZyx: I’m afraid I don’t see it. Too bad, too, because that would be like the artist signing his or her work! (But would require an anomalous level of artistic sophistication.)

    Michael Brady: Thanks for the book recs!

    And as for the article itself, I’ve never seen why poor old Neanderthal shouldn’t get some art cred. Tch, we sapiens sapiens are such egocentrics. Who else would name themselves sapiens sapiens?

  • Sunny D

    Ok, thanks guys for the replies. I made an error in judgement.


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