The oldest ‘brush’ of humanity was painted in Malaga 65,000 years ago


A team of researchers analyzes the interior of the Ardales cave, in Malaga.

A team of researchers analyzes the interior of the Ardales cave, in Malaga.
PEDRO CANTALEJO-DUARTE

In a remote corner of the Malaga municipality of Ardales, a spectacular underground grotto has starred in one of the most passionate debates of the history of art. In some well-protected rooms of the cave of Doña Trinidad, some striking red markings they adorn the imposing stalagmites that descend from the ceiling. But are these reddish lines the result of natural processes or have they been created by someone? A new study led by the University of Barcelona (UB) concludes that these footprints, dated around 65,000 years, are “without a doubt” the work of human activity. This would suppose, then, that we are before oldest human painting found to date. The oldest ‘brush strokes’ of our species.

A reddish pigment analysis found on the rocky surface confirms that these lines were created with a mineral pigment of ocher. That is, of a primitive paint mixing Obtained, probably, from materials collected in the surroundings of the Andalusian cave. “This would imply that the authors of these red spots had what to find, select, collect and transport the raw materials that would later be used in the cavity “, points out Africa Pitarch, principal investigator of this work, published this Monday in the journal ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’ (PNAS).

Sample of the reddish marks found inside the Ardales cave, in Malaga. JOÃO ZILHÃO


The study of these paintings also indicates that, taking into account their age, these lines had to be work of Neanderthal populations who at that time roamed the area. In fact, the analyzes show that these marks were painted in two stages; some 65,500 years ago and others between 45,300 and 48,700 years ago, so it seems that this ‘pictorial tradition’ passed from generation to generation. If the dating is confirmed, this would assume that the first human paintings were forged one 20,000 years before modern ‘sapiens’ will reach the European continent.

The oldest work of art of mankind?

Confirmation that the reddish markings found on the ardales cave they are the work of a human hand opens a new question. Can we define these brush strokes as the mankind’s first work of art? The answer, far from being simple, calls for a much thornier debate than it might seem. The debate about what is art and what is not also has a lot to do with how it is described its origin, its intention and its function. So depending on how each of these questions is defined, these prehistoric ‘brushstrokes’ could be considered (or not) as a sample of rock art.

According to the researchers in charge of the study of these brands, “painting stalagmites cannot be considered art in a strict sense, but rather, it would be the result of graphic behaviors with the aim of perpetuate the symbolic meaning of a space“The experts, in fact, consider that these marks could be interpreted as the beginning of a long and complex process of construction of a symbolic culture. Or as the germ of art, depending on how you look at it.

Close-up of the red lines painted in the cave of Ardales. PEDRO CANTALEJO-DUARTE


The paleoanthropologist João Zilhão, ICREA researcher and supervisor of this study, explains that the fact that Neanderthals dedicated themselves to decorating stalagmites with red paint suggests that these populations “sought highlight and perpetuate the importance of this site through narratives passed down between generations. “This practice would also show the will of Neanderthals to”strengthen cohesion between the members of the group and their link with the territory “, argues the scientist in a press release sent by the University of Barcelona.

So what do we know about humanity’s oldest work of art? In these moments, to speak with total security of a rock art work it takes a little leap in time. If what we are looking for are rock representations oldest found to date, the answer could be in the hand painted on the Maltravieso cave from Cáceres or in the set of lines discovered in the Cantabrian grotto of La Pasiega, both about 64,800 years old and located in Spain. If, instead, we talk about figurative art, the oldest example identified to date is the gigantic 45,500-year-old wild boar found on the island of Celebes in Indonesia. This chronology could change radically as soon as a new find is made.

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