El Castillo Cave Paintings
World's Oldest Cave Painting: Red Ochre Disks, Hand Stencils.

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The world's oldest cave art in the
rock shelter of El Castillo, Spain.
The Red-Ochre Disk or Large Dot
below the hand stencils is dated
39,000 BCE. The hand stencils are
dated to c.37,300 BCE. See also:
Oldest Stone Age Art- Top 100 works.

El Castillo Cave Paintings (c.39,000 BCE)
World's oldest parietal art: red-ochre disks and hand stencils


World's Oldest Cave Painting
The Cave Paintings
Archeological Excavations
Did Neanderthal Artists Paint the Cave of El Castillo
Related Articles

To see how the cave art at El Castillo fits into the chronology of
Stone Age culture, please see: Prehistoric Art Timeline.


World's Oldest Cave Painting

The Cave of El Castillo (Cave of the Castle), is a Stone Age rock shelter in Spain which contains the oldest cave painting yet discovered: namely, a panel of abstract signs and hand stencils rock art located in the "Gallery of the Hands", one of which (a disk of red ochre) has been Uranium/Thorium dated by Dr. Alistair Pike of Bristol University, to at least 39,000 BCE. This makes it the earliest art of its type ever recorded, albeit only by a whisker - see the important Sulawesi Cave art, cited below. Discovered in 1903 by the Spanish archaeologist Hermilio Alcalde del Rio, a famous expert in the prehistoric art of Spain, the 300-metre long cave is one of several ancient rock shelters in Monte Castillo, a conical limestone mountain situated near the town of Puente Viesgo, south of Santander in the Cantabria region of Spain. Another nearby shelter is the Cave of La Pasiega, which dates back to about 16,000 BCE. The El Castillo Cave consists of two basic areas; a large entrance chamber (the "Gran Sala"), and a subsequent extensive labyrinth of narrow galleries totalling almost a kilometre in length. The parietal art on the walls of the galleries consists of over 100 images, including several rock engravings of deer as well as images of animals (aurochs, bison, goats, horses) along with some rare images of dogs, many of which are superimposed, as well as a large number of hand stencils and disks created by spraying paint onto the rock surface through a tube. For another important Spanish rock shelter in the Asturias, see: Tito Bustillo Cave (c.14,000 BCE). For another important Aurignacian site of cave painting from Central Europe, see: Coliboaia Cave Art (30,000 BCE).


The Cantabrian municipality of Puente Viesgo is home to several important sites of Paleolithic art and culture in Spain, notably the caves of El Castillo, La Pasiega, Las Monedas and Las Chimeneas. These shelters are found along the Pas river in the Castillo mountain, just at the intersection of three valleys, close to the Atlantic coast, an ideal location to support the hunting and fishing activities of several Paleolithic settlements.

Note: Another treasure of Iberian Stone Age art is the huge collection of outdoor carvings - the Coa Valley Rock Engravings (22,000 BCE) in northeastern Portugal.

The Cave Paintings

Much of El Castillo's Stone Age art is figurative and includes a number of outstanding drawings of horses, bison, deer and mammoths as well as some rare images of dogs. Of these, the black paintings have been assigned to the era of Solutrean art (c.20,000-15,000 BCE), while the polychrome paintings, like the red mammoth, belong to the era of Magdalenian art (15,000-10,000 BCE). However, the abstract art - including some 40 red ochre hand stencils and dozens of large red discs - belongs to the earlier period of Aurignacian art (c.40,000-25,000 BCE). Most of the stencils are grouped on a panel in a narrow gallery (known as the Gallery of the Hands) which lies beyond the Gran Sala, although isolated stencils and pictographs can be found in deeper, more remote locations in the cave. A red disk in the deeper "Corredor de los Puntos", for example, was spray-painted about 33,000 BCE.

For details of the earliest hand stencils found in South America, see: Cuevas de las Manos (Cave of the Hands) (7,300 BCE).




The rock art could not be dated using traditional radiocarbon dating methods, as no organic pigments (eg. charcoal) had been used. So in 2012, Dr. Alistair Pike and his team of UK, Spanish and Portuguese archeological researchers dated the tiny calcite stalactites which had formed over the paintings, using the Uranium/Thorium (U/Th) method to check for the radioactive decay of uranium.

In simple terms, Uranium/Thorium testing works like this. As water seeps out of the rock and runs down the wall and over the painting, it leaves behind a thin screen of calcite (calcium carbonate). This calcite contains uranium, which decays into thorium at a known rate. Therefore, by measuring how much uranium has decayed, scientists are able to determine the age of the calcite screen and thus the minimum age of the painting.

The results were very surprising: one of several large red dots, or disks, was dated to roughly 39,000 BCE; a nearby negative hand stencil was dated to at least 35,300 BCE. This makes the El Castillo pictures about 10,000 years older that the Chauvet Cave paintings in France, which had previously been considered the oldest art of this type in the world. And its hand stencils are 10,000 years older than those at Cosquer Cave or Pech Merle (c.25,000 BCE).

Similar dating results have been confirmed for the Altamira Cave paintings located near the village of Antillana del Mar in Cantabria, where a club-shaped (claviform) symbol was dated to about 34,000 BCE. These results confirm that the oldest Franco-Cantabrian cave art is now to be found in Spain, rather than France.

NOTE: The recent dating of hand stencils and animal imagery in the Leang Timpuseng Cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi Cave, to the early Upper Paleolithic, is a significant archeological discovery, with implications for Paleolithic sites across Asia and Australia. For more details, see: Sulawesi Cave art (Indonesia), (37,900 BCE).

Archeological Excavations

The first archeologist in the El Castillo cave, Hermilio Alcalde del Rio, uncovered an extensive series of painted and engraved images in several different chambers. A decade later, between 1910 and 1914, the Castillo's Gran Sala was excavated by Hugo Obermaier and Henri Breuil from the Institute of Paleontology in Paris. Much later, during the 1980s, the stratigraphy at El Castillo was re-excavated, and researchers succeeded in distinguishing thirty separate archeological layers, dating from the Neanderthal Mousterian culture (c.150,000 BCE) through to the end of the Homo sapiens - dominated Upper Paleolithic and Neolithic.

NOTE: No mobiliary art has been found at El Castillo, or any form of prehistoric sculpture, including reliefs.

Did Neanderthal Artists Paint the Cave of El Castillo

The new older dates for El Castillo's art have reignited the debate about the identity of the earliest cave artists. Until about 40,000 BCE, Europe was populated by Neanderthal man (Homo neanderthalensis). Then suddenly anatomically modern Homo sapiens (AMHS) starts to arrive in Europe, from Africa, and the Neanderthals quickly disappear. After an interval of about 4,000 years or so, the first art appears (in the form of ivory carvings), leading most experts to believe that it was the new "modern" humans who were responsible. However, now that we know that man was painting as early as 39,000 BCE, the situation is less clear, and some paleoanthropologists are beginning to consider the possibility that the first artist was a Neanderthal.

NOTE: For details of the colour pigments used in Paleolithic cave painting, see: Prehistoric Colour Palette.

So who is responsible for the ancient art at El Castillo? According to Pike, there are three basic possibilities. (1) Perhaps AMHS humans were already familiar with cave painting when they reached Europe. True, there are no known cave paintings anywhere in the world that predate the arrival of AMHS in Europe, but it remains a theoretical possibility. (2) Cave painting developed almost immediately after modern humans arrived in Europe, because they had to compete with Neanderthals - a situation they didn't have to face in Africa. It is possible that parietal art was made as a by-product of this competition. This particular argument has been completely undermined by the discovery of the decorated caves in Sulawesi (c.37,900 BCE). (3) Perhaps Neanderthals were painting caves in Europe before AMHS humans arrived in 40,000 BCE. This last possibility is the most controversial, as - despite Neanderthals being familiar with body painting and face painting, as well as primitive forms of jewellery - there is no evidence of any cave painting prior to 40,000 BCE. (But see: Gorham's Cave art in Gibraltar - 37,000 BCE.) The only definitive solution is to locate cave paintings made (say) 42-43,000 years ago. If such art was discovered, its creator would have to be a Neanderthal artist. Until then, the more likely candidate is a modern human.

Note: For a comparison with contemporaneous African art, see the animal figures on the Apollo 11 Cave Stones (c.25,500 BCE).

Related Articles

• For details of early European plastic art, see: Venus Figurines.
• For more about Neanderthal culture, see: La Ferrassie Cave Cupules.
• For the earliest art of Sub-Saharan Africa, see: Blombos Cave Engravings.


• For more information about Franco-Cantabrian cave painting, see: Homepage.

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