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Altxerri cave paintings confirmed as oldest known in Europe

Team of scientists dates wall art at 39,000 years old

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The results of the investigation into the Altxerri B site in Gipuzkoa have been published in the Journal of Human Evolution. Europa Press

Wall paintings in the Altxerri cave system in Gipuzkoa have been certified by experts as the oldest known in Europe. The paintings have been dated at 39,000 years old - 3,000 years older than those in the famous Altamira caves in Cantabria. The study was carried out by a team of scientists from the Universities of Cantabria, Burgos and Toulouse.

The International Institute of Prehistoric Investigation of Cantabria said in a press release that the conclusions of the study carried out in a gallery of the system known as Altxerri B have been published in the Journal of Human Evolution.

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.”

The Altxerri paintings were first discovered in 1962. Ever since 1966 indications existed that there were further paintings in an upper gallery. Until now, they had never been fully investigated. Both the Altamira and Altxerri caves are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.