Looking oddly akin to the DNA double helix, the images in fact depict the seals that the locals would have eaten, says José Luis Sanchidrián at the University of Cordoba, Spain. They have “no parallel in Palaeolithic art”, he adds. His team say that charcoal remains found beside six of the paintings – preserved in Spain’s Nerja caves – have been radiocarbon dated to between 43,500 and 42,300 years old.
That suggests the paintings may be substantially older than the 30,000-year-old Chauvet cave paintings in south-east France, thought to be the earliest example of Palaeolithic cave art.
The next step is to date the paint pigments. If they are confirmed as being of similar age, this raises the real possibility that the paintings were the handiwork of Neanderthals – an “academic bombshell”, says Sanchidrián, because all other cave paintings are thought to have been produced by modern humans.
Neanderthals are in the frame for the paintings since they are thought to have remained in the south and west of the Iberian peninsula until approximately 37,000 years ago – 5000 years after they had been replaced or assimilated by modern humans elsewhere in their European heartland.
Until recently, Neanderthals were thought to have been incapable of creating artistic works. That picture is changing thanks to the discovery of a number of decorated stone and shell objects – although no permanent cave art has previously been attributed to our extinct cousins.
Now some researchers think that Neanderthals had the same capabilities for symbolism, imagination and creativity as modern humans.
The finding “is potentially fascinating”, says Paul Pettitt at the University of Sheffield, UK. He cautions that the dating of cave art is fraught with potential problems, though, and says that clarification of the paintings’ age is vital.
“Even some sites we think we understand very well such as the Grotte Chauvet in France are very problematic in terms of how old they are,” says Pettitt.
If the age is confirmed, Pettitt suggests that the cave paintings could still have been the work of modern humans. “We can’t be absolutely sure thatHomo sapiens were not down there in the south of Spain at this time,” he says.
Sanchidrián does not rule out the possibility that the paintings were made by early Homo sapiens but says that this theory is “much more hypothetical” than the idea that Neanderthals were behind them.
Dating of the Nerja seal paintings’ pigments will not take place until after 2013. Further excavations in the extensive cave system – discovered by a group of boys hunting bats in 1959 – is ongoing.