It looks like a game of tic tac toe, but engravings found deep inside a cave in Gibraltar might be a Neanderthal masterpiece. At more than 39,000 years old, the etchings rival in age the oldest cave art in Europe — and they are the first to be unquestionably done by a Neanderthal, claim the researchers who discovered them. Other scientists, however, say that the artwork's attribution is not an open-and-shut case.
Archaeologists uncovered the engravings in Gorham’s Cave, a site overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. A team led by zoologist Clive Finlayson, the director of the Gibraltar Museum, has been excavating the cave since the late 1980s. The researchers found that the Neanderthals who called the cave home ate fish, shellfish and birds, and perhaps survived later than their counterparts elsewhere in Europe.
But in July 2012, Finlayson's colleague Francisco Pacheco crawled on the cave floor through a narrow passage to reach the very rear of the chamber, and happened on the etchings, carved on a horizontal platform that is elevated 40 centimeters from the bedrock, like a natural coffee table. “We started to shine the torch in different directions and we started to see the relief of this thing. It’s not immediately obvious,” says Finlayson. The drawings cover an area of about 20 by 20 centimeters, roughly the size of a Frisbee, and are up to a few millimeters deep.