A group of archaeologists has uncovered new evidence suggesting that elusive red ochre pigment in Cave of Ardales in Spain was applied by Neanderthals. Their findings, published in a recent study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), are a key contribution to a long held debate in the archaeological community over the paintings’ origins.
The study, “The symbolic role of the underground world among Middle Paleolithic Neanderthals” by Africa Pitarch Martí et al. sought to determine whether or not the red pigmentation found on a group of cauliflower form stalactites in the Cave of Ardales was naturally occurring or was brought into the cave. They analyzed samples gathered from the pigmented portion of the stalactites as well as from other areas in the cave that were colored, using a microscope that uses electrons to image objects as little as a nanometer in length. The pigment on the stalactites was definitively found to be a material foreign to the cave, and the surface texture suggests it was probably applied through splattering or blowing. This supports the hypothesis that the markings were made by Neanderthals, as the pigments date back to more than 20,000 years before Homo Sapiens inhabited Europe.
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Furthermore, the archaeologists found that the pigment had been applied at different points in time over a period of 10,000 years, meaning that fellow Neanderthals likely went back to this cave and painted the stalactites again and again. The pigments are thought to be at least 64,800 years old, and now that it seems likely they were made by Neanderthals, they are probably the oldest known cave paintings in the world.
The Cave of Ardales is a rare repository of Paleolithic art whose walls feature more than 1,000 paintings. While the oldest of the paintings, the pigments on the stalactites described above, are quite simple, more complex forms—lines, dots, hand stencils, and more—later emerged.