Neanderthal Minimalism? Are contemporary dot-errific artists Yayoi Kusama and Damien Hirst being subconsciously influenced by their prehistoric ancestors? Or did some prehistoric gallery forget to remove one of their  little red “sold” dots after a major exhibition? Whatever the case, the fact is that our understanding of prehistoric art continues to grow by leaps and bounds. Now, Science Magazine has published findings on what they believe to be the oldest scientifically dated cave painting ever, and it’s a simple red dot.

Their findings, the paper suggests, “reveal either that cave art was a part of the cultural repertoire of the first anatomically modern humans in Europe or that perhaps Neanderthals also engaged in painting caves.”

The New Scientist wrote about the discovery in their latest issue:

As cave art goes, it doesn’t look like much: a single red dot, hidden among a scatter of handprints and drawings of animals on the wall of El Castillo cave in northern Spain.

But this red dot is at least 40,800 years old, making it the oldest known piece of cave art in Europe. At that time modern humans had only just migrated out of Africa, raising a tantalising possibility: that the dot was drawn by a Neanderthal. If that’s the case, our extinct cousins may have had the rudiments of written language.

While this dot isn’t going to probably show up in Art History textbooks any time soon, the process the scientists used to date the painting may shed new light on prehistoric art in general. The article mentions:

Some Australian rock art apparently depicts birds that have been extinct for 40,000 years, but most of it has not been chemically dated.

Now the rush to find the oldest work is on. We reported earlier this year about the seal paintings in Spain, which various Spanish-langugage sources called the oldest known paintings, though the scientific findings have not yet been published, then there was the oldest known rock art, which was in the form of a vulva, that we wrote about last week. Now this dote. We may have to accept that our knowledge of prehistoric art is marginal at best and will be fast changing in the years and decades ahead.

The New Scientist points out numerous facts that have yet to be underdetermined, including if this dot was made by early modern humans or Neanderthals. If it was the former, than they “either brought the practice with them from Africa — but left little trace of it there — or developed it incredibly quickly once they reached Europe.”

Another theory is that the paintings were done by the Neanderthals, who are already known to have used “crayon-like pigments to draw on themselves.” And the final theory, which doesn’t really think much of Neaderthals, suggests that the pre-modern human group may “have mimicked the drawings produced by modern humans, without understanding what they meant.”

Until we have more facts about the evolution of art we are left pondering the idea that the history of painting could have possibly sprung from a simple red dot in Spain.

All images by the author based on 1, 2, 3

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