ARCHAEOLOGISTS from a Yorkshire university have proved that pictures were being painted on cave walls 40,800 years ago, more than 10,000 years earlier than previously thought.
A team, which included cave art expert Dr Paul Pettitt from Sheffield University, used sophisticated techniques to date a series of 50 paintings found in northern Spain,
The findings, published in the journal Science, indicate that the paintings were made either by the first anatomically modern humans or by Neanderthals.
Dr Alistair Pike, who led the team, said: “Evidence for modern humans in northern Spain dates back to 41,500 years ago, and before them were Neanderthals.
“Our results show that either modern humans arrived with painting already part of their cultural activity or it developed very shortly after.”
Art which shows the outline of human hands and disc-shaped pictures show that their creators blew paint onto the walls of caves in a kind of stencilling process.
The team said the images could have been created by early man or Neanderthals physically spitting paint onto the walls or using some method of blowing the pigment.
Dr Pettitt said: “Until now our understanding of the age of cave art was sketchy at best; now we have firmly extended the earliest age of European cave art back by several thousand years, to the time of the last Neanderthals and earliest Homo Sapiens.
“These earliest images do not represent animals, and suggest that the earliest art was non-figurative, which may have significant implications for how art evolved.”
To accurately date the paintings archaeologists measured uranium isotopes in the stalactites which had formed on the surfaces of the paintings.
Dr Pike explained: “Engravings and, in many cases, paintings lack organic pigments or binders suitable for radiocarbon dating.
“Where suitable material – such as charcoal pigments – does exist, only small samples can be dated to minimize damage to the art.
“The technique, known as uranium-series disequilibrium, is used extensively in Earth Sciences and avoids the problems related to radiocarbon dating.”