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Using a blade or an electric drill, the team took 50 small samples from calcite that directly overlay either paintings or engravings in 11 caves in northwest Spain.

Because the calcite overlays the paintings, it must be younger than the art, and so yields minimum ages.

The images in the front hall are primarily red, created with liberal applications of red ochre, while the back hall images are mainly black, drawn with charcoal.

The black drawings are grouped into two main phases; a paste of ground charcoal in water for the more recent and a dry charcoal stick for the earlier.

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.

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

Figuring out the age of cave art is fraught with difficulties.

Radiocarbon dating has long been the method of choice, but it is restricted to organic materials such as bone and charcoal.

The other objection raised by Combiera and Jouve was to do with the results of the calibrated AMS radiocarbon, which they say may be incorrect.This tradition, the researchers argue, is far removed from the earlier motifs of its origins, known from art on stone blocks and shelter walls dated by stratigraphy to the Aurignacian (around 31,000 ± 1,000 BP) in France and Cantabrian region of Spain.The decoration from this period is often more stylistic and markedly geometric, and therefore the Chauvet animals would be too early for the Aurignacian period that they are presently dated to.By examining and comparing the red and black painted figures, as well as the engraved images, to the later Gravettian and Solutrean period examples, they feel there is a marked stylistic similarity, including the way that both mammoth and horse are portrayed.They conclude that although Chauvet cave displays some unique characteristics, it appears to belong to a far more evolved phase of parietal art that sits within a Franco-Cantabrian tradition around 26,000 - 18,000 years ago.