New radiocarbon dating results indicate that six seals painted on the walls of the Nerja cave in Málaga, southern Spain, are more than 42,000 years old, making them the oldest human art on record. Neanderthals lived in the area at that time — they died out about 30,000 years ago — and they are known to have eaten seals. The Homo sapiens who followed them also painted on the cave walls, but no depictions of seals have been found in any of their art.
The stretch of land from Nerja to Gibraltar is thought to be last area in Europe inhabited by Neanderthals before they were elbowed out by the Cro-Magnon Homo sapiens. The caves were discovered in 1959 by five schoolboys who had observed enormous numbers of bats going in and out of a hole in the ground. They finally decided to explore the hole and once they wriggled through it, they found themselves in an enormous cave now known as the Cataclysm Chamber. The seal paintings are high on the walls of that same chamber.
The paint itself was not tested. Charcoal traces less than four inches away from the seals, which researchers think were used either to make the paintings or as illuminating elements in the composition, were radiocarbon dated to 43,500 and 42,300 years ago. University of Cordoba professor José Luis Sanchidrián, who has been running a conservation project on the site since 2008, wants to carbon date the thin organic film that formed over the paintings shortly after their creation. That’s the only way to absolutely date the art itself. Unfortunately, the project is short of funds so everything is on hold for now.
If the dates are confirmed, then those six seals will not just hold a new record — the current record-holders for oldest art are the 32,000-year-old paintings in the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave — but they will revolutionize our understanding of humanity itself. “An academic bombshell,” Sanchidrián calls it, and that’s putting it mildly. The ability to produce art has thus far been considered the exclusive province of Homo sapiens, a distinguishing mark separating us from other human, but not as human as us, species.