The results of an earlier round of sampling in El Castillo cave, published last June1, showed that the oldest of the paintings, a simple red spot, dates to at least 40,800 years ago, roughly when the first modern humans reached western Europe. Pike and his colleagues think that when they analyse the latest samples, the paintings may turn out to be older still, perhaps by thousands of years — too old to have been made by modern humans. If so, the artists must have been Neanderthals, the brawny, archaic people who were already living in Europe.
The answer won’t be known for at least a year, but if it favours the Neanderthals, it could tip — if not resolve — a debate that has rumbled for decades: did the Neanderthals, once caricatured as brute cavemen, have minds like our own, capable of abstract thinking, symbolism and even art? It is one of the most haunting questions about the people who once shared a continent with us, then mysteriously vanished.
Story: Time Appenzeller, Nature | Photo: Pedro Saura