Colored Stalagmites Painted by Neanderthals are the Oldest “Cave Art” Known

Cueva de Ardales in southern Spain was filled with handprint stencils and drawings of people and animals. It also contains red-spotted flowing stones, which have sparked controversy over whether the color is natural, or something more important: the cave’s oldest art, which later provides an original story for more complex work.

New research has settled the question of human intervention, which provides an opportunity to explore the development of cave imagery from the outset. The period of painting, up to about, 65,000 years, proves that the first artists were Neanderthals, not Homo sapiens. More well-known cave art has used the flat surfaces available, but Cueva de Ardales has a dome of stalagmites, some of which are colored in a way that looks almost natural but leaves room for question. 

In the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Marty and co-authors report that the pigment is a mineral rather than a microbial. Iron, in the form of hematite, provides the color. The material is replaced by stalagmite, calcium is always present and each sample contains at least one carbon and silicon, sometimes with other trace metals. Importantly, when iron-rich deposits exist in caves, they have different structures of these stalagmites’ pigments; Most do not contain hematite.

Limestone structures could not normally get their color from iron structures, the authors said. This means that human hands have been painted outside the cave using pigments from unknown sources. The location of some spotted stalagmites does not rule out accidental brushing against an outcrop. Although in most cases the authors are not sure how this color was applied, some of it appears in the folds so inaccessible can only be reached by airborne droplets, which suggests a blowing process that is often seen later on hand stencils.

The authors think this may be a way for Neanderthals to highlight the natural structure of the caves for themselves. “We would think that the bearer of symbolic information, in this case, the large stalagmatic dome is sheltering the panel, not the panel itself,” the authors wrote; Say another way, using the dome as a canvas is a useful shorthand but it should not be understood that this large structure is no more than a convenient surface that is used to mark and these symbols are in themselves and a repository of symbolic information. Instead, we believe that the dome is a symbol and that the paintings are there to mark it, not the other way around.