The ladder shape composed of red horizontal and vertical lines (center left) dates to older than 64,000 years and was therefore probably made by Neanderthals. Image credits: P. Saura.

New dating methods show that Europe’s oldest cave paintings were possibly made by Neanderthals.

The cave paintings in three caves in Spain – La Pasiega, Maltravieso, and Ardales – are the oldest found in Europe and the paintings now appear to be much older than previously thought. The paintings have been dated using new more accurate dating methods and they appear to have been made long before Homo sapiens arrived in Europe.

In the study, published in Science, a team of researchers from several European countries used new superior methods for analyzing isotopes of carbon coatings on the paintings – specifically uranium in calcium deposits that had formed over the paint.

It turned out they are probably more than 60,000 years old. Thus, the paintings could have been made by Neanderthals, rather than Homo Sapien, according to the researchers.

“Our results show that the paintings we dated are, by far, the oldest known cave art in the world, and were created at least 20,000 years before modern humans arrived in Europe from Africa — therefore they must have been painted by Neanderthals.”

– The researchers write.

This would mean that the Neanderthals were more like us humans than previously thought. Our version of Neandertals have been updated in recent years, and scientists now believe that the culture and mental capacity of Neanderthals seem to have been quite similar to Homo sapiens.

All three cave and paintings are red (ochre) or black paintings of groups of animals, dots, and geometric signs, as well as hand stencils, handprints, and engravings. Creating this art must have involved such sophisticated behavior as the purposeful choice of a location, planning of light source and mixing of pigments. The Neanderthals, therefore, had the ability to express themselves with the advanced culture and abstract thinking.

“The issue of just how human-like Neanderthals behaved is a hotly debated issue. Our findings will make a significant contribution to that debate.”

This is the first time any evidence of a Neanderthal cave painting has been found. This art form had been considered human and human alone – until now. There has been some evidence that Neanderthals used body ornamentation around 40,000 to 45,000 years ago, but some researchers argue that they learned the idea from humans, which is difficult to disprove. The only way to clearly show that Neanderthals came up with the idea on their own was to date their work to before they met humans — exactly what this study does.


Dirk Hoffmann et al. “U-Th dating or carbonate crusts reveals Neanderthal origin or Iberian cave art“. Science. February 22, 2018. DOI: 10.1126 / science.aap7778