These cave paintings of seals are believed to be at least 42,000 years old, making them the oldest dated paintings known to man. (photo by the Fundación Cueva de Nerja, via

Our knowledge of art continues to expand by leaps and bounds. While we once believed that art was the exclusive domain of the more evolved Homo Sapiens Sapiens but the latest find, according to archaeological project leader José Luis Sanchidrián, suggests that the earliest known painting was created by Homo Neanderthalensis. So, maybe you should think twice before calling someone a Neanderthal.

Gizmodo spotted the news on Spanish-language sites:

According to the latest dating of the charcoal found next to the paintings — used either to make the paintings or illuminate them — these seals may have been made more than 42,300 years ago. In fact, they may be as old as 43,500 years.

There have been other art objects, particularly sculptures like the Venus of Hohle Fels (35,000-40,000 yrs old), that come close in date but none as old as this.

These newly discovered paintings push the origins of painting back 10,000 years. Previously the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave, which was featured in Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” was the earliest known work.

This latest fact is sure to frustrate archaeologists going forward as they wade into the “is it art” debate. Picture it:

Older Archaeologist: “Do you think this clutter of skeletons was the burial chamber of an Aurignacian settlement?”

Younger Archaeologist: “Have you considered it could be an art colony or a gallery space?”

Older Archaeologist: ”What?”

Younger Archaeologist: “Yeah, like the remains of some durational performance piece. Just because they’re Neanderthals doesn’t mean they’re not artistic.”

Or maybe not, though this guy does look like an artist.

UPDATE: One of our Facebook commenters pointed out another object in the same date range (but still not as old) as these newly discovered paintings is the Divje Babe flute. The “instrument” consists of holes carved in a cave bear femur, which is believed to be made by Neanderthals and is on display at the National Museum of Slovenia (Narodni Muzej Slovenije) in Ljubljana.

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic.

5 replies on “Earliest Known Paintings Discovered in Spain”

  1. This is very cool!  I saw some pretty old drawings in some cool caves in France–not Lascaux, though.  BTW, if you find yourself in Seattle, WA–this Friday–come to Echo Echo Gallery and check out our amazing Art scene at the Greenwood Collective!

  2. Is it just me or does that look like a double helix, a strand of DNA?
    I find it interesting that the seals are drawn vertically, kissing each other, so it seems. The drawing is more than mere representation, it’s also telling something of a story, relating some emotional connection/commonality with animals.
    So many cave paintings seem to be accurate (drawn as realistically as they might have been able) depictions of animals, but Herzog’s documentary makes a point of showing that the first self portraits of humans were deliberately painted hand prints, almost abstract, not figurative representations of the human form. I like thinking the earliest artists were more concerned with depicting the world outside themselves. What does it say about art today that has become so intellectualized? -art about art, and the sort. Is modern art in greater awe of human existence than the natural world? I think we like to believe human psychology is more complex and tireless to exploration, while the natural world is no longer mystical and wondrous as it once appeared to indigenous cultures. We are becoming more and more detached from the wilderness, unable to see it as essential to our own lives. As I become more entrenched in an urban environment (I only recently transplanted to NYC from Ohio), nature has begun to appear in my mind like some auxiliary realm that one can visit for a week during vacation, otherwise it doesn’t exist. It is certainly weird to think neanderthals were so closely connected to seals that they saw themselves as similar creatures, while I’ve become so detached from nature, a seal in my presence tomorrow would appear to me as some extraterrestrial being.

  3. I have to point out that this painting as well as the drawings in the film The Cave Of Forgotten Dreams are  rendered in stylized line art styles.  Some of the drawings in the Herzog film had a better grasp of line work than Egyptian Hieroglyphs which were done 25 thousand years later.   There is a reason we, as humans, make an easy connection to cartooned versions of people, places, and animals which is why 100+ years after the advent of photography you still see them in books, magazines, and newspapers.  This form of painting;  paintings “hung” on a wall to be viewed by others, in a bare minimal amount of lines to convey the image (a gesture drawing) is our oldest.   This is also the sort of thing that American politicians who want to cut funding for the Arts need to think about.  Long before language, writing, and math there was art, it’s part of us.

  4. Just reading a very interesting anthropological take on lines….but much more really than what the title suggests.  “Lines: a brief history”…Tim Ingold. 

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