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I was deeply moved when I visited France last summer and toured one of the great caves that contain beautiful paintings by our ancestors. Now, similar paintings in Spain have proven to be 40,000 years old. From the AP story:

New tests show that crude Spanish cave paintings of a red sphere and handprints are the oldest in the world, so ancient they may not have been by modern man. Some scientists say they might have even been made by the much-maligned Neanderthals, but others disagree. Testing the coating of paintings in 11 Spanish caves, researchers found that one is at least 40,800 years old, which is at least 15,000 years older than previously thought. That makes them older than the more famous French cave paintings by thousands of years.

Scientists dated the Spanish cave paintings by measuring the decay of uranium atoms, instead of traditional carbon-dating, according to a report released Thursday by the journal Science. The paintings were first discovered in the 1870s. The oldest of the paintings is a red sphere from a cave called El Castillo. About 25 outlined handprints in another cave are at least 37,300 years old. Slightly younger paintings include horses. Cave paintings are “one of the most exquisite examples of human symbolic behavior,” said study co-author Joao Zilhao, an anthropologist at the University of Barcelona. “And that, that’s what makes us human.”

Those hand paintings, which I are like those I saw in France, are so evocative of a profound sense of individuality and purpose.  These artistic endeavors—creativity engaged in for a symbolic purpose—never occurred prior to the emergence of man.  Art demonstrates that we somehow became removed, for whatever reason, from the purely biological.  It implies a spirituality, a search for meaning, and moral sense that never existed before us in the hundreds of million years intelligent life existed on the earth. We really are exceptional.

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