When the cave paintings in Altamira were first discovered in the XIXth century, there were many historians who labeled them as a hoax, scoffing at the notion that men of the Stone Age could have not only the intelligence, but also the artistic refinement to create images of such a life-like quality. Later, when the age of the paintings was finally confirmed, the famous painter Pablo Picasso visited the cave located in northern Spain & said “after Altamira, everything is decadence,” as a way to express his respects for the mastery of the anonymous artist(s) who decided to create a time-capsule of their natural environment.
Since then, even older cave paintings have been discovered throughout Europe, including the equally famous cave of Lascaux (France) & Chauvet, which with an age of 30-32,000 years were considered the oldest representation of pictorial art in Europe… until now.
A team of archeologists from the Cantabria University in Spain have just announced that the cave paintings in the Altxerri cave system –located in the Basque country, and originally discovered in 1962– are approximately 39,000 years old, 3000 years older than Altamira. To give you a sense of perspective, that's the same number of years separating us from the biblical king David!
The investigation was launched in 2011 when Cantabria University members Aitor Ruiz and César González decided to concentrate on the upper Altxerri B gallery to date the paintings there. “It became immediately apparent that we were dealing with a completely independent grouping from the lower gallery,” noted Ruiz. It was then determined that a chronology for Altxerri B should be established. Diego Garate, a specialist in Upper Paleolithic cave art from the University of Toulouse, was brought on board.
As it was not possible to use the paintings for a direct dating – because they consist of non-organic material – the team employed other indicators such as bone fragments discovered in the gallery. A separate geological study showed that the mineral and other deposits in the cave, which had been sealed for thousands of years, were also different to those in the lower gallery, “which supports the dating of the paintings.”
Would this new discovery force us to push back the arrival of modern humans into the Old Continent, or does it simply indicate Cro-Magnons arrived to a level of sophistication we hadn't credited them with at a much early age?
…Or better yet: could these paintings be the work of those other humans inhabiting Europe, the 'brutish' Neanderthals?
All I know is that the tale of our origins is being edited & re-written more quickly than a soap opera. We've still got a lot to learn about the days of our (ancestors') lives.