A new dating method applied on several cave paintings shows cave art is 20,000 years older than previously thought

Painting in Altamira : Universidad de Barcelona

Scientists from several universities and research institutions, such as João Zilhão, ICREA researcher from the Prehistoric Studies and Research Seminar (SERP) of the UB, have published in the journal Science the paper “U-series dating of Palaeolithic art in eleven caves in Spain” in which a new method has been applied to date the cave paintings in eleven cave sites in Cantabria and Asturias.

In particular, uranium-series disequilibrium dating has been used to date the formation of calcite deposits overlying or underlying cave paintings and engravings. This technique, quite common in geological research and which circumvents the problems related to carbon dating, indicates that the paintings studied are older than previously thought: at least 20,000 years older.

Thus, some of the paintings would extend back at least to 40,800 years ago, that is, to Early Upper Palaeolithic, and it even opens the possibility that this first artistic activity in the European continent was made by Neanderthals or was the result of the interaction between Neanderthals and modern humans.

The study has been carried out in eleven caves in Cantabria and Asturias in exceptional Prehistoric art sites, including the UNESCO World Heritage sites of Altamira, El Castillo, La Pasiega, Covalanas, El Pendo and Tito Bustillo. It is an international research in which have taken part, together with SERP-UB researchers, experts from the University of Bristol, the National Research Centre on Human Evolution (CENIEH), the University of the Basque Country, the University of Sheffield, the University of Alcalá de Henares, the University of Cantabria, and the National Museum and Research Centre of Altamira.


This research has yielded the oldest data obtained so far in European cave paintings dating. Thus, researchers have determined that a red disk in the cave known as El Castillo dates back to a minimum of 40,800 years ago; paintings in the Tito Bustillo cave extend back to between 35,000 and 30,000 years ago, and they also obtained a date of at least 35,000 years for a claviform-like symbol on Polychrome Ceiling in Altamira.

“Results show that cave art in Spain dates back at least to Early Upper Palaeolithic, 35,000 years ago, instead of to Late Upper Palaeolithic, 20,000 years ago, as it was considered. The minimum age obtained in the paintings in El Castillo reveals either that perhaps Neanderthals were already engaged in painting caves or that it was a by-product of the interaction between modern humans and Neanderthals during the period when they were in contact in Europe”, explains João Zilhão.

Research results are consistent with the idea that there was a gradual increase in technology and graphic complexity over time, as well as a gradual increase in figurative images.

The new technique used in this research allows circumventing some limitations of carbon dating, which can only be applied on organic pigments, which are not present in all cave art and which are often contaminated. The uranium-series disequilibrium dating is based on two uranium-isotopes, U-238 and U-235, and allows obtaining dates from small calcite samples without affecting the paintings. Zilhão, who began this study when he was a researcher at the University of Bristol, explains that the research will continue and that there is already a project to date more cave paintings in Spain, France and Italy using this new technique.  The SERP, led by professor Josep M. Fullola, is a research group linked to the Chair of Prehistory of the Department of Prehistory, Ancient History and Archaeology of the UB. It was founded in 1986 and since then it has focused on the paleoenvironmental reconstruction and the study of cultural evolution in Prehistory from an interdisciplinary approach.

Contributing Source : Universidad de Barcelona

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