Europe’s oldest cave artwork was yesterday confirmed to be at least 40,800 years old and may have been painted by Neanderthal man.

For the Palaeolithic paintings in northern Spain have been precisely dated for the first time, proving the art form began in Europe 10,000 years earlier than previously thought.

Scientists were able to work out the age of the paintings by dating the formulation of tiny stalactites on top of the art using the radioactive decay of uranium.

They examined a total of 11 caves in northern Spain, including the Unesco World Heritage sites of Altamira, El Castillo and Tito Bustillo.

There has never been any proof that Neanderthals produced cave art but they did bury their dead, used some primitive decorative techniques on their bodies and left behind pendants made of bones and shells, experts said in the US journal Science.

“So it would not be surprising if Neanderthals were Europe’s first cave artists,” said co-author Joao Zilhao, from the University of Barcelona.

The cave images include a club, red discs and handprint stencils that were made by someone placing a hand against a cave wall and blowing paint on it.

One such disc in the El Castillo cave dates back more than 40,800 years, making it the oldest cave art in Europe, said the researchers.

“We are claiming the oldest reliably dated paintings in the world,” said author Alistair Pike, a reader in archaeological sciences from the University of Bristol.

A number of oldest claims have been made recently, from the Chauvet cave in France at 32,000 years to a limestone wall dating back some 37,000 years at Abri Castanet, a well-known archeological site in south western France.

Other analyses of art in India and Australia purport to be older but none were tested with the latest technique and some interpretations are invalid because they are based on style, not science, the authors said.

While the findings in Spain so far do not prove that the art was done by Neanderthals, “we must say there is a probability that that is the case,” said Mr Zilhao.

Another possibility is that the cave art was done by the first modern humans to reach Europe, with the earliest evidence of their arrival dating to 41,500 years ago. The Neanderthals died out around 40,000 years ago. To be certain that the work was done by Neanderthals, scientists would have to find a painting that dates older than 42,000 years, the researchers said.

Human ancestors in Africa were known to make shell beads and create geometric designs on egg shell containers more than 50,000 years ago, before the dispersal of modern humans in Europe.

But Mr Zilhao said his hunch is that the Spanish cave art was done by Neanderthals because the procedure they are using for testing, by radioactive decay of uranium on calcite deposits on top of the art, does not touch the last layer of material that is in contact with the paint to avoid destroying it.

Therefore, the artwork itself may be several thousand years older than the calcite on top of it, he explained.

“It cannot be proven at this time, it is just my gut feeling,” he told reporters, adding that more extensive studies are underway in search of even older evidence.

According to Mr Pike, the team’s analysis technique is superior to radiocarbon dating, which is widely used but can often turn up conflicting dates within the same painting.

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