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A date from a disk shows this “Panel of Hands’’ painting in the El Castillo Cave in Spain to be older than 40,800 years.
A date from a disk shows this “Panel of Hands’’ painting in the El Castillo Cave in Spain to be older than 40,800 years. PEDRO SAURA/AAAS VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS

NEW YORK - Stone Age artists were painting red disks, handprints, clublike symbols, and geometric patterns on European cave walls long before previously thought, in some cases more than 40,000 years ago, scientists reported Thursday, after completing more reliable dating tests that raised a possibility that Neanderthals were the artists.

A more likely situation, the researchers said, is that the art - 50 samples from 11 caves in northwestern Spain- was created by anatomically modern humans fairly soon after their arrival in Europe.

The findings seem to put an exclamation point to a run of recent discoveries: direct evidence from fossils that Homo sapiens populations were living in England 41,500 to 44,200 years ago and in Italy 43,000 to 45,000 years ago, and that they were making flutes in German caves about 42,000 years ago. Then there is the new genetic evidence of modern human-Neanderthal interbreeding, suggesting a closer relationship than had been generally thought.

The successful application of a newly refined uranium-thorium dating technique is also expected to send other scientists to other caves to see if they can reclaim prehistoric bragging rights.

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In the new research, an international team led by Alistair W.G. Pike of the University of Bristol in England determined that the red disk in the cave known as El Castillo was part of the earliest known wall decorations, at a minimum of 40,800 years old. That makes it the earliest cave art found so far in Europe, perhaps 4,000 years older than the paintings at Grotte Chauvet in France.

The handprints common at several of the Spanish caves were stencils, made by blowing pigment on a hand placed against the cave wall. The oldest example, at El Castillo, proved to be at least 37,300 years old, which the scientists said “considerably increases the antiquity of this motif and implies that depictions of the human hand were among the oldest art known in Europe.’’

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At many-chambered Altamira, its splendor discovered in the 19th century, the researchers obtained a date of at least 35,600 years for a red club-shaped symbol.

Archaeologists said this indicated that Altamira’s artistic tradition started about 10,000 years earlier than once estimated, and the cave appeared to have been revisited and painted many times over a span of 20,000 years.

In a report published online in the journal Science, Pike and his colleagues said that the oldest dated art is “nonfigurative and monochrome (red), supporting the notion that the earliest expression of art in Western Europe was less concerned with animal depiction and characterized by red dots, disks, line, and hand stencils.’’ The more stunning murals of bison and horses came gradually, later.

Although the early dates coincide with recent evidence of a Homo sapiens presence in Europe, the scientists wrote that because 40,800 is only a minimum age “it cannot be ruled out that the earliest paintings were symbolic expressions of the Neanderthals,’’ who were living in that part of Spain until at least 42,000 years ago.

These close relatives of modern humans had lived in Europe and parts of Asia since at least 250,000 years ago, becoming extinct about 30,000 years ago, mostly in southern Iberia.

In another article for the journal, John Hellstrom of the University of Melbourne in Australia, an authority on dating prehistoric artifacts, praised the research. “The scope of their study has allowed them to unambiguously identify a number of examples that challenge and overturn the previous understanding of that art’s origin,’’ he wrote.

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Hellstrom said “three of the 50 examples dated show art to have been created in Spain at around the time of the arrival of modern humans, bringing current ideas of the prehistory of human art in southern Europe into question.’’

In a teleconference Wednesday, Pike said the older dates suggested three possible interpretations. One, Homo sapiens entered Europe with the tradition of cave art already part of the culture. Another possibility is that this artistic culture arose shortly after modern humans reached Europe. The third possibility is that some of these earliest works of cave art might be attributed to Neanderthals.