It was a mere 37 days ago that researchers declared the Chauvet Cave paintings the oldest in the world—the beautiful French paintings documented by Werner Herzog in the 3D film “Cave of Forgotten Dreams.” Now scientists are stating that the El Castillo cave paintings in Spain, created by the Iberian culture, are the oldest in the world at 40,800 years. The research was published today in the scientific journal Nature.
This latest cave painting news certainly gets the imagination firing vis-à-vis the implication of the findings. If cave art of the Chauvet and El Castillo caliber was being created 40,000 years ago, how many thousands of years were spent perfecting and handing down the craft to these painters? What might these civilizations have looked like in those years? For if human beings were capable of this sort of artistry 40,000 years before the Bible claims the world began, what else might they have been doing?
To think, to dream of the possibilities of humanity’s collective past is the stuff of fiction. And life is so often stranger than the most surreal and epic fiction and poetry.
Eleven caves featuring 50 paintings in northern Spain were dated by the radioactive decay of uranium, a method called uranium-series disequilibrium, instead of radiocarbon dating. According to Nature, the research team was comprised UK, Spanish and Portuguese researchers led by Dr Alistair Pike of the University of Bristol, UK.
It was the breathtaking hand-blown paintings of hands and disks at El Castillo, which look startling like modern street art, which were dated as the oldest at 40,800 years. Dr. Pike believes it’s possible that the hands may not be human after all, but Neanderthal.
“Evidence for modern humans in Northern Spain dates back to 41,500 years ago, and before them were Neanderthals,” said Dr. Pike. “Our results show that either modern humans arrived with painting already part of their cultural activity or it developed very shortly after, perhaps in response to competition with Neanderthals – or perhaps the art is Neanderthal art.”
“We see evidence for earlier human symbolism in the form of perforated beads, engraved egg shells and pigments in Africa 70-100,000 years ago, but it appears that the earliest cave paintings are in Europe,” added Dr. Pike. “One argument for its development here is that competition for resources with Neanderthals provoked increased cultural innovation from the earliest groups of modern humans in order to survive. Alternatively, cave painting started before the arrival of modern humans, and was done by Neanderthals. That would be a fantastic find as it would mean the hand stencils on the walls of the caves are outlines of Neanderthals’ hands, but we will need to date more examples to see if this is the case.”
Other beautiful and complex paintings to behold in the El Castillo cave involve geometric shapes that look just as brilliant as any Cubist, Surrealist or Dada painting.