Joint lead author Dr Chris Standish, an archaeologist at the University of Southampton, said: "This is an incredibly exciting discovery which suggests Neanderthals were much more sophisticated than is popularly believed."Our results show that the paintings we dated are, by far, the oldest known cave art in the world, and were created at least 20,000 years before modern humans arrived in Europe from Africa - therefore they must have been painted by Neanderthals." A team of researchers from the UK, Germany, Spain and France analysed more than 60 carbonate samples from three cave sites in Spain - La Pasiega (north-eastern Spain), Maltravieso (western Spain) and Ardales (south-western Spain).All three caves contain red (ochre) or black paintings of groups of animals, dots and geometric signs, as well as hand stencils, hand prints and engravings.According to the researchers, creating the art must have involved such sophisticated behaviour as the choosing of a location, planning of light source and mixing of pigments.
Alistair Pike, Professor of Archaeological Sciences at the University of Southampton and co-director of the study, said: "Soon after the discovery of the first of their fossils in the 19th century, Neanderthals were portrayed as brutish and uncultured, incapable of art and symbolic behaviour, and some of these views persist today.
"The issue of just how human-like Neanderthals behaved is a hotly debated issue.