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First Painters May Have Been Neanderthal, Not Human

European cave paintings are older than previously thought, raising the possibility that Neanderthals rather than Homo sapiens were the earliest painters.

That’s not yet certain: The paintings may have been made by humans at an unexpectedly early date, which would itself raise intriguing questions, though none so tantalizing as Neanderthal painters.

“It would not be surprising if the Neanderthals were indeed Europe’s first cave artists,” said João Zilhão, an archaeologist at Spain’s University of Barcelona, at a press conference on June 13.

Researchers led by Zilhão and Alistair Pike of the United Kingdom’s University of Bristol measured the ages of 50 paintings in 11 Spanish caves. The art, considered evidence of sophisticated symbolic thinking, has traditionally been attributed to modern humans, who reached Europe about 40,000 years ago.

Traditional methods of dating cave paintings, however, are relatively clumsy. Even the previous best technique — carbon dating, or translating amounts of carbon molecule decay into measurements of passing time — couldn’t discern differences of a few thousand years.

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