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And a few researchers say that the study argues for the slow development of artistic skill over tens of thousands of years.

Other early dates include 37,300 years for a hand stencil at Tito Bustillo Cave and 35,600 years for a club-shaped image at the famous Altamira Cave, whose artworks were previously thought to be only about 17,000 years old.

Forty-thousand years ago, Neandertals were still living in Spain, while modern humans were only just entering Europe.

(Zilhao discounts recent dates from Germany of up to 43,000 years ago.) Other researchers praise the study, but are cautious about concluding that Neandertals were cave artists.

"Excellent work," says geochemist Henry Schwarcz of Mc Master University in Hamilton, Canada, although he notes that daters can't say how much time passed between the creation of the art and the formation of the calcite layer.

The basic questions about early European cave art—who made it and whether they developed artistic talent swiftly or slowly—were thought by many researchers to have been settled long ago: Modern humans made the paintings, crafting brilliant artworks almost as soon as they entered Europe from Africa.

Now dating experts working in Spain, using a technique relatively new to archaeology, have pushed dates for the earliest cave art back some 4000 years to at least 41,000 years ago, raising the possibility that the artists were Neandertals rather than modern humans."There is an emerging picture of the earliest cave art being largely nonfigurative," says Pettitt, who has long challenged the Chauvet dates as too old."Chauvet is the only example which apparently defies this rule." He concludes that an "evolutionary model" of art, from simpler motifs to sophisticated animal and human figures, better fits the data and that the Chauvet dating is probably wrong.The Pike team has not taken into account several potential problems with U-series dating, adds Helene Valladas of the Laboratory of Climate and Environmental Sciences in Gif-sur-Yvette, France, who led the dating at Chauvet.She says it's possible that some of the uranium in the calcite has been washed out by later water flows, which would increase the thorium/uranium ratio and make the ages seem older than they really are.The French dating team at Chauvet is disdainful of such a conclusion.

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