Neanderthals - not humans - were first artists
Neanderthals invented art 20,000 years before the ancestors of Henri Matisse and Claude Monet thought of daubing pictures of prehistoric bison on cave walls, a study has found.
Startling new evidence from three caves in Spain suggest some of the earliest rock paintings have wrongly been attributed to Homo sapiens. Instead they were probably the work of our extinct sister species, the Neanderthals - once dismissed as brutish creatures with more in common with chimpanzees than people.
Scientists now know the Neanderthals were no ape-men. They used simple stone and bone tools, wore clothing, adorned their bodies and may have had a complex language.
The latest discoveries published in the journal 'Science' show Neanderthals were capable of highly sophisticated symbolic thought.
The cave paintings, made with red and black pigments, consist of groups of animals, dots and abstract geometric designs, as well as stencilled hand prints.
They occupy three sites at La Pasiega, Maltravieso and Ardales, situated up to 700km apart in different parts of Spain.
A state-of-the-art technique was used to date the paintings more accurately than ever before.
The findings fixed the age of the art works at 64,000 years ago - long before the arrival of the first "modern" humans in western Europe.
Archaeologist and joint lead researcher Dr Chris Standish, from the University of Southampton, said: "This is an incredibly exciting discovery which suggests Neanderthals were much more sophisticated than is popularly believed.
"Our results show the paintings we dated are by far the oldest known cave art in the world and were created at least 20,000 years before modern humans arrived in Europe from Africa - so they must have been painted by Neanderthals."
The dating method involved sampling ultra-thin carbonate deposits built up over time that contain the "mother and daughter" radioactive elements uranium and thorium.
Measuring the relative levels of the two elements indicates how long it has taken for one to decay into the other. The technique is far more reliable than radiocarbon dating.
The scientists analysed more than 60 samples taken from the paintings.
Neanderthals co-existed with modern humans for thousands of years in Europe and Asia and the two are thought to have interbred.
They became extinct around 38,000 years ago. Two leading theories are an inability to adapt to climate change and competition from our ancestors. Or possibly they may simply have been assimilated into the growing modern human population.