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On this Friday, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. The famous paintings on the walls of caves in Europe mark the beginning of figurative art, and a great leap forward for human culture. Now, a different method of determining the age of some of these cave paintings is raising questions about their provenance.

It's not that they're fakes - just that it might not have been modern humans who made them. NPR's Christopher Joyce has this story.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: The first European cave paintings are thought to have been made over 30,000 years ago. They depict animals and hunters. Some of the eeriest are stencils of human hands, apparently made by blowing a spray of pigment over a hand held up to a wall.

But now, scientists are suggesting those aren't human hands - at least, in some caves in Spain. Alistair Pike is an archaeologist at the University of Bristol in England, who used a novel technique to get new dates for some of those paintings. He says they're older than people thought, and may just predate the arrival of humans in Europe.

ALISTAIR PIKE: What we are saying is that we must entertain the possibility that these paintings were made by Neanderthals.

JOYCE: Our closest relatives ever, but not our species. Pike says some of these paintings are at least 40,800 years old. At that time, Neanderthals pretty much owned Europe. Modern humans had just arrived from Africa. Pike concedes that maybe humans got there with palette and pigment in hand, ready to paint the town. But the paintings could be even older than that.

Pike's technique dates the age of the calcium carbonate that naturally forms in layers on top of the paintings. It's kind of like nature's shellac. Obviously, the paintings had to be made before the first layer formed. Archaeologist Joao Zilhao, from the University of Barcelona, is part of the scientific team. He says his gut tells him it's Neanderthal art.

JOAO ZILHAO: We can't be 100 percent certain that they did it. I think there is a strong probability. My point is, the evidence for symbolic behavior among the Neanderthals already exists.

JOYCE: Neanderthals did perform ritual burials. Pike notes that they also made ornaments, like decorative beads.

PIKE: Why should it be surprising that Neanderthals produced art?

JOYCE: Well, it does surprise archaeologists like Pat Shipman, who's spent a lifetime studying symbolic behavior. She wonders why Neanderthals waited till about the time humans arrived, to get the itch to paint.

PAT SHIPMAN: OK, Neanderthals had been there for 300,000 years - and they're not doing this. If they are not doing it before, why would they suddenly start doing it at that point?

JOYCE: Shipman notes long before humans made the trek from Africa to Europe, they had been making all sorts of symbolic artifacts - ocher hash marks on stone, or symmetrical marks on ostrich eggs; that sort of thing.

SHIPMAN: I find it easiest to assume that people who are already doing that moved into more figurative representations, than thinking that an entirely other species of people suddenly came up with making figurative art.

JOYCE: The research appears in the journal "Science." Pike says he needs to find paintings a few thousand years older than he has so far, to convince the skeptics.

Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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