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Neanderthals painted on cave walls in Spain 65,000 years ago – tens of thousands of years before modern humans arrived, say researchers

Scientists attached to the latest research explain how they dated the paintings and their significance.

More than 65,000 years ago, a Neanderthal reached out and made strokes in red ochre on the wall of a cave, and in doing so, became the first known artist on Earth, scientists claim.

The discovery overturns the widely-held belief that modern humans are the only species to have expressed themselves through works of art.

In caves separated by hundreds of miles, Neanderthals daubed, drew and spat paint on walls producing artworks, the researchers say, tens of thousands of years before modern humans reached the sites.

The finding, described as a “major breakthrough in the field of human evolution” by an expert who was not involved in the research, makes the case for a radical retelling of the human story, in which the behaviour of modern humans differs from the Neanderthals by the narrowest of margins.

Paintings on a section of the La Pasiega cave wall, including a ladder shape composed of red horizontal and vertical lines.
 Paintings on a section of the La Pasiega cave wall, including a ladder shape composed of red horizontal and vertical lines. Photograph: P. Saura/PA

Until now, the evidence for Neanderthal art has been tenuous and hotly contested, often because the works were not old enough to rule out modern humans as the real artists. But the latest findings, based on new dates of symbols, hand stencils and geometric shapes found on cave walls across Spain, make the most convincing case yet.

“I think we have the smoking gun,” said Alistair Pike, professor of archaeological sciences at the University of Southampton. “When we got the first date for the art, we were dumbfounded.”

The Neanderthals were already firmly at home in Europe when modern humans left Africa and made their way to the continent about 40,000 years ago. The remnants of Neanderthals, in the form of skeletons, tools and decorative adornments, reach back more than 120,000 years in the region.

Evolutionary timeline

In a study published in Science on Thursday, an international team led by researchers in the UK and Germany dated calcite crusts that had grown on top of ancient art works in three caves in Spain. Because the crusts formed after the paintings were made, the material gives a minimum age for the underlying art.

Measurements from all three caves revealed that paintings on the walls predated the arrival of modern humans by at least 20,000 years. At La Pasiega cave near Bilbao in the north, a striking ladder-like painting has been dated to more than 64,800 years old. Faint paintings of animals sit between the “rungs”, but these may have been added when Homo sapiens found the caves millennia later…Read More at

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