New research conducted by the University of Bristol says cave paintings in Northern Spain are the oldest in Europe. Paintings in El Castillo were dated to 40,800 years ago. The method used "uranium-series disequilibrium" by which decaying uranium isotopes were measured in calcite that formed over cave surfaces. The new dating method may be used in other famous cave paintings to determine more definitive ages.
Among the visages on the cave walls of El Castillo are hand prints known as the "Panel of Hands." The paintings were made by placing a hand on the cave wall and then paint was spit or blown onto the hands to form a stencil pattern. Known as Paleolithic art, cave paintings are found all over Europe.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art states the Paleolithic caves in Lascaux, France offer a rare treat. Among the bison, horses, mammoths, ibex, deer, lions and bears there is a unique treasure. A lone human figure is depicted on a cave wall. The complex of caves is in southwestern France. Visitors don't have to go to Europe to see the entire cave structure. The official website has a virtual tour depicting every angle and every painting in Lascaux.
Altamira is also located in Northern Spain and is part of a UNESCO World Heritage site as part of 17 caves in the area. Instead of hands, paintings of large mammals similar to bulls and deer were depicted on cave walls. Known as the "Sistine Chapel of Paleolithic Art," Spain decided to re-open the caves in 2010 after they were closed to public viewing for eight years. The Daily Telegraph reported that the Cantabrian region welcomed the news although many scientists believe the site will be damaged simply by humans breathing in the cave which encourages mold growth.
Grotte Chauvet is also in France. The cave was discovered in 1994 and is a more recent find among cave paintings. By contrast, Lascaux was found in 1940. Cave paintings in northern Spain were first eyed by modern humans in the late 1800s. Chauvet was originally carbon dated to around 32,000 years ago, according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Rhinoceros, bears, panthers, oxen and owls were represented along with hand prints. The New York Times reports the paintings in Grotte Chauvet are about 4,000 years younger than El Castillo based upon the recent findings.
Researchers from Oxford published new radiocarbon dating on pieces of figurative art found in Geissenklosterle Cave in southwestern Germany. Flutes and jewelry were believed to be made around 42,500 years ago. Science Daily reported in late May on the fact that these items pre-date actual cave paintings and may be the oldest human artwork discovered thus far.
William Browning is a research librarian.