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Art & Artifacts

Neanderthals painted Spanish cave red

Chemical analysis of pigments confirms cave art’s Paleolithic origins

by Emily Harwitz
August 8, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 29

More than a thousand symbols mark the stalagmitic dome of the Cave of Ardales in Málaga, Spain, and some of the oldest ones were indeed put there by Neanderthals, reports a team led by Africa Pitarch Martí and João Zilhão of the University of Barcelona confirming their debated 2018 study (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 2021, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2021495118). The group used scalpels to remove microscopic particles of red pigment from a specific section and compared them with iron oxide–rich scrapings from around the cave. Using a suite of microscopy and spectroscopy tools, the group characterized the composition of the samples and found that the ochre-based red pigment is distinct from minerals found in the cave. Further, pigment composition varied by layer, indicating that it was “the result of at least three different moments of artistic activity spread out over at least 20,000 years,” Zilhão says. Some of the panels date back over 65,000 years, when Neanderthals were the only humans in Europe. “It’s a game changer in our understanding of the origins of art and the cognition and behavior of the Neanderthals,” Zilhão says.

Stalagmites marked with red pigments.
Credit: João Zilhão
Chemical analysis of the pigments shows that Neanderthals splattered paint onto these stalagmites on three separate occasions spanning 20,000 years.


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