The first modern humans in Europe perhaps did more than hunt and gather. They may have been artistically inclined, according to a new study.
Scientists involved in the research, to be released Friday in the journal Science, found cave art that dates back thousands of years earlier than previously thought. The team of researchers said the findings imply the paintings were created either by the first anatomically modern humans in Europe or, perhaps, by Neanderthals.
"This currently is Europe's oldest dated art by at least 4,000 years," said archaeologist and lead author of the study Alistair Pike in a press conference to reporters.
The creation of art by humans is considered an important marker for the evolution of modern cognition and symbolic behavior, and may be associated with the development of language, scientists say.
"Modern humans and Neanderthals are defined on the basis of the morphology of the skeleton and on the basis of genes. There is nothing in the genes or in the morphology of the skeleton to say whether a Neanderthal skeleton implies an advanced cognition or not," said Joao Zilhao, co-author on the study.
Initially, the team of archaeologists set out to improve the chronology of rock art when they stumbled upon this new finding.
While surveying 50 cave paintings across 11 caves in northwestern Spain, archaeologists sampled thin crusts of mineral deposits of calcium carbonate (roughly the size of a grain of rice) that had grown over the ancient paintings in these limestone caves.
Then, using a technique called uranium-thorium dating, which is less destructive than the more popular radiocarbon dating, the team was able to obtain the minimum age of the cave paintings.
"The calcium carbonate incorporates tiny amounts of radioactive uranium, which decays to (thorium) and it's the measurement of this buildup of thorium that can tell us how long since those crusts formed," said Pike.
According to the researchers, one particular cave painting of a red disk is at least 40,800 years old, whereas an ancient hand stencil is at least 37,300 years old and a club-shaped symbol appears to be more than 35,600 years old.
"We know that modern humans arrived in Europe between 42,000 and 41,000 years ago. We know then that the calcite crust formed on top of an existing red disc symbol at 40,800," said Pike.
Pike and his colleagues claim their findings are the only ones that predate modern humans in Europe. The data detailing the antiquity of the cave artwork provides supporting evidence to support their claim, that Neanderthals could have possessed a higher order artistic trait but more sampling and research is needed before they can make a definitive conclusion.