Feb. 23 (UPI) -- Modern humans weren't the first hominin with an artistic side. New research suggests Neanderthals were painting the walls of caves at least 64,000 years ago, roughly 20,000 years before modern humans began populating Europe.
Archaeologists discovered a series of ancient cave paintings in Spain. The artwork was made with paint derived from rich red-colored minerals. Scientists were able to date the paintings by analyzing the layers of carbonate deposited atop the paint.
The analysis method, called deuranium-thorium dating, proved the paintings were made more than 64,000 years ago.
"Our results show that the paintings we dated are, by far, the oldest known cave art in the world," Chris Standish, an archaeologist at the University of Southampton, said in a news release.
The three Spanish caves detailed in the new study -- published this week in the journal Science -- featured depictions of animals, as well as dot patterns and geometric shapes. The paints are accompanied by engravings and hand stencils.
Because scientists believe humans weren't yet living in Europe at the time the painting were created, they hypothesize that the art was created by Neanderthals, suggesting the hominins were capable of symbolic behavior.
Despite ample evidence that modern humans and Neanderthals interacted and even interbred, Neanderthals continue to be portrayed as more brutish and less sophisticated than modern humans. The latest discovery could force archaeologists to reconsider such a narrative.
"The issue of just how human-like Neanderthals behaved is a hotly debated issue," said Alistair Pike, professor of archaeological sciences at Southampton. "Our findings will make a significant contribution to that debate."
Scientists have found older symbolic, or artistic, artifacts in Africa, but have credited modern humans with their creation. But the latest findings suggest modern human's predecessors were also capable of creating and appreciating material with symbolic, not practical, value.
Researchers suggest the paintings, found in three separate caves, suggest art was a practiced tradition among Neanderthals -- not an anomaly.
"Neanderthals created meaningful symbols in meaningful places. The art is not a one-off accident," said Paul Pettitt, a researcher at Durham University. "It is quite possible that similar cave art in other caves in Western Europe is of Neanderthal origin as well."