Ancient drawings discovered in Spain have been crowned the world’s earliest cave art. Scientists claim the images date back 40,800 years and may have been done by Neanderthals.
The find in 11 caves in northern Spain has beaten the previous record held by Chauvet cave in central France, which boasts drawings of animals thought to date back 39,000 years.
Scientists say Spain’s cave art is now the oldest known in Europe, and probably the oldest in the world. The drawings feature animals, round red dots and a series of handprints known as a Panel of Hands.
"We find one of these [handprints] to date older than 37,300 years on the Panel of Hands, and very nearby there is a red disc made by a very similar technique that dates to older than 40,800 years,” Dr. Alistair Pike, archaeological scientist from Bristol University explained to reporters.
Working in the caves, scientists had to solve the difficult task of dating the ancient images. Pike explained that unlike bones or tools that can be carbon-dated and associated with artifacts found nearby, cave art is “not associated with anything but itself.”
The team of scientists used a special technique to date the drawings. They analyzed the calcite patinas that form with mineralized water dripping over the art for thousands of years, just like stalagmites and stalactites form in caves.
Over time, the calcite accumulates naturally occurring radioactive uranium from the water. Uranium atoms with years decay into thorium at a very precise rate. The ratio of the two different elements in a sample forms a so-called clock that can determine the sample’s age quite accurately.