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Regardless, if there is evidence to find that Neanderthals were artists, dating will be the thing to expose it.

‘We’re kind of at the mercy of geochemistry.’Pike’s team used this method to give a minimum date to red hand stencils found in a cave in northern Spain called El Castillo, which contains the oldest known cave art in the world. This is long after humans were supposed to become anatomically modern, adding to the evidence suggesting that early anatomically modern humans didn’t necessarily act modern. Anatomically modern humans arrived in northern Spain around 42,000 to 43,000 years ago, and Neanderthals died out between 39,000 and 41,000 years ago.

But because the stencil date is a minimum age, there’s a chance the Neanderthals could have been the artists.

It’s possible to measure the ratios of uranium-238/uranium-234 and thorium-230/uranium-238, the latter of which depends on the former.

Since only uranium, and not thorium, is present at sample formation, comparing the two ratios can be used to calculate the time passed since the sample formed. Pike’s team are not actually dating the painting itself, but small calcite growths on top of it.

‘Dating is absolutely crucial, it underpins everything,’ says Michael Walker.

Based at the University of Wales Trinity St David, he has devoted his career to studying the Quaternary period – the last 2.6 million years and the so-called ‘age of humans’.So how do we investigate the development of human evolution if it’s outside the radiocarbon timescale?To get a clearer picture, scientists are exploiting diverse physical phenomena, from uranium’s radioactivity to life’s preference for l-amino acids.Instead, Pike’s team turned to uranium-series dating, another radiometric method.Uranium-238 decays through a series of isotopes to uranium-234, which then itself decays to thorium-230.A portion of the carbon is the radioactive isotope carbon-14.

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