Our ancestors were artists far earlier than experts had believed, new dating techniques reveal. Paintings in El Castillo cave in northwestern Spain are at least 40,800 years old—the oldest ever found, and ancient enough that Neanderthals could have painted them. That would come as a surprise, since experts have only lately seen Neanderthals as sophisticated enough for such work. But researchers think the artists were probably Homo sapiens, the New York Times reports.
Much of the early artwork featured a common theme: the human hand. Researchers found traced handprints in a group of 11 Spanish caves, with the earliest pegged at 37,300 years old. The designs, done all in red, suggest the early art was "less concerned with animal depiction and characterized by red dots, disks, line and hand stencils," experts say. The work was dated using newly refined uranium-thorium dating, which compares traces of the two materials in ancient calcium carbonate.