Were Neanderthals more artistically gifted than we gave them credit for?
Carbon dating shows that prehistoric paintings may have been work of much maligned forerunner of modern man
Neanderthals are generally regarded as being one or two steps removed
from the ape. Brutish, and with heavy brows, the Neanderthal is an
admitted low cousin on the chain that led to modern man. However -
archaeologists in Spain, thanks to carbon dating have determined that
many of the classic cave paintings noted for their grace and style are
much older than previously believed - and the Neanderthals may have had
their hands in it.
This hand stencil in Spain's El Castillo cave dates back at least 37,300 years, based on uranium-series testing, and could conceivably show a Neanderthal hand outline.
The latest discovery is all part of an "ongoing program" to date hundreds of European cave paintings more accurately. University of Bristol's Alistair Pike, lead author of a paper published in the journal Science says that it's still too early to say conclusively whether Neanderthals were behind at least some of the artistry.
Pike says he is confident that the earliest paintings go back at least 40,800 years, which matches up with the earliest evidence of anatomically modern humans in Europe.
Zilhao says that based on carbon dating, it's also thousands of years earlier than the previously accepted maximum age.
"We were not expecting these results," Zilhao said. "When we put this project together, the idea was to improve the chronology of rock art, and particularly in the case of Spain."
"The basic findings are the sorts of things you could take to the bank," Penn State archaeologist Dean Snow, who wasn't part of the research team, says. Snow acknowledged that the latest findings produce "three or four new problems that we didn't have before."
"Now, with these older dates, we have to entertain the possibility that there might have been some Neanderthal involvement in some of these paintings," Snow said. "We've never really seriously considered that before."
Tests were conducted on 50 Paleolithic paintings in 11 Spanish caves, including the famous pictures of horses and human hands at the Altamira and El Castillo caves. The paintings had previously been dated using radiocarbon tests. Pike's team used a different technique that analyzed the proportions of uranium, thorium and related elements in the calcite deposits that formed above and below the paintings.
The scientists are confident that the age they get will be the minimum age for the artwork. In some cases, the scientists could sample flowstone deposits beneath the layer of paint to get a maximum age as well.
© 2014 - Distributed by THE NEWS CONSORTIUM
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