Cantabrian rock art competes for the title of earliest on Earth

14 Jun
Latest dating of calcite layers on top of rock art from several caves from Cantabria (Northern Iberia) suggest that they could host the oldest rock art on Earth and that this one is extremely old, almost from the earliest possible presence of Homo sapiens (anatomically modern humans) in the area.


Paleolithic cave art is an exceptional archive of early human symbolic behavior, but because obtaining reliable dates has been difficult, its chronology is still poorly understood after more than a century of study. We present uranium-series disequilibrium dates of calcite deposits overlying or underlying art found in 11 caves, including the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage sites of Altamira, El Castillo, and Tito Bustillo, Spain. The results demonstrate that the tradition of decorating caves extends back at least to the Early Aurignacian period, with minimum ages of 40.8 thousand years for a red disk, 37.3 thousand years for a hand stencil, and 35.6 thousand years for a claviform-like symbol. These minimum ages reveal either that cave art was a part of the cultural repertoire of the first anatomically modern humans in Europe or that perhaps Neandertals also engaged in painting caves. 

I have been checking a database (direct download) recommended by John Hawks and Millán Mozota and the dates I find are all Archaic Aurignacian and not anymore Mousterian for the relevant dates, at least for El Castillo cave:
  • Latest Mousterian: 45.5 Ka calBP (42.1 Ka BP, uncalibrated C14)
  • Earliest Aurignacian: 44.7 Ka calBP (41.1 Ka BP, uncalibrated C14) [but see comments on the nature of this “Aurignacian”]
They really leave the Neanderthal possiblity in the unlikely zone… unless you think that Archaic Aurignacian or even Aurignacian in general is the creation of Homo neanderthalensis. 
The also mentioned Altamira and Tito Bustillo caves do not seem to have any date before Solutrean or Magdalenian respectively, nor evidence of Mousterian presence either (I checked other sources as the database only reaches back o c. 50 Ka).

El Castillo rock art (several periods) – source

It is worth reminding however that rock art from Australia depicting the long-gone Genyornis giant duck is probably older than this European art and without any reasonable doubt was made by Homo sapiens.
However there is rock art from Nerja (Andalusia, Southern Iberia) that is dated to c. 43 Ka BP, being in fact older than the mural art from Cantabria. In this case the likelihood of it being Neanderthal-made is quite greater because there is no evidence for Aurignacian in the area until c. 29 Ka BP (raw C14) and no dates from Nerja (unspecific culture but probably Aurignacian from regional context) until c. 25.6 Ka BP (raw C14) or c. 29.6 Ka BP calibrated.
These contradictions between quite older rock art ages than occupations documented from digs should be of some concern but no idea how the contradiction may be solved.
The famous ochre bisons of Altamira are still from the Magdalenian period anyhow, even if much of the rock has been revised towards older dates in the area.

Update (Jun 15): Pileta includes now a video of the presentation of the study in Spanish language (scroll down).

Update (Jun 16): I strongly recommend any interested reader to take a look at the comments section. Prehistorian and Neanderfan Millán Mozota makes many most interesting comments on the chronology and arguable Transitional Aurignacian nature of layer 18 from El Castillo cave.

Update (Jun 19): Jean Clottes and others question the certainty of the dating method.


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