Neanderthals were apparently painting DNA 43,000 years ago

This cave painting is thought to be 43,000 years old, making it 8,000 years older than any other known art. It was most likely the work of Neanderthals, who apparently discovered the DNA double helix 43 millennia before we did.

Of course, this image doesn't actually depict DNA - archaeologists currently believe these are meant to be the seals that the locals ate for food, which you can see more clearly in the image below - but its resemblance to the double helix means it should serve as the perfect grist for either your next sci-fi short story or crackpot, pseudoscientific gobbledygook, depending on how you're feeling.

Neanderthals were apparently painting DNA 43,000 years agoS

According to an archaeological team led by José Luis Sanchidrián of Spain's University of Cordoba, charcoal found right next to the paintings date to between 43,500 and 42,300 years ago, so the likely inference is that the paintings date to right about the same time period. If dating the pigments of the paintings themselves confirms that timeframe, then not only will these paintings represent the oldest known painting on the planet - it will also mean that the painting probably isn't the work of humans.

We can't be absolutely sure who would have occupied the Nerja Cave, located near Spain's southern coast, at this particular point in its history, but it is thought that Neanderthals lived in this part of the Iberian peninsula until about 37,000 years ago. The area served as a last refuge from the spread of modern humans throughout the rest of Europe, and it places them square in the Nerja Cave at the time these paintings were done.

This would represent a huge bombshell in our understanding of Neanderthals - not to mention give them the title of world's first painters - although there are some pretty serious caveats to consider here. First, the dating of the cave painting isn't an easy task, and there's plenty of room for error in determining a general range of dates. And then, while these paintings do seem to date to a time when Neanderthals dominated this part of Europe, that doesn't preclude the painting being the work of an isolated band of ancient humans.

Until we know more, let's give the Neanderthals the benefit of the doubt and just marvel at our seal-hunting, cave-painting, possibly but yeah probably not actually DNA-harvesting evolutionary cousins. They've earned that much.

Via New Scientist. Images by Nerja Cave Foundation.