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Until now, Chauvet Cave in central France, which is plastered with images of bears, lions and horses, held the title of the world's oldest cave paintings.

The oldest images there are dated to around 39,000 years old, but this is controversial as the assessment relies on radiocarbon dating of charcoal pigments, which are susceptible to contamination from other sources of carbon.

That image, as well as other slightly younger disks from Castillo and a club-shaped image from Altamira cave, would have been painted at around the time the first modern humans, called the Aurignacian culture, reached the Iberian Peninsula.

Younger paintings in the Spanish caves, including handprints and figurative drawings of animals, date to later human occupations.

“I don’t think one can say these are multicoloured and these are monochrome to make judgements about the art or even the cognitive abilities of Neanderthals or humans.” Determining just who created the earliest cave paintings will factor into debates over the relative mental capacities of the two species.

They showed a sureness of line unlike anything known from the Ice Age, a realism eons apart from the engraved mammoth tusks familiar to archaeologists.

Invited to visit Altamira, King Alfonso XII was so impressed that he crawled on his knees to view the deepest caverns.

In 1905–06, Henri Matisse used cave painting as a source for his Fauvist masterpiece Le bonheur de vivre.

In 1908, one of Sanz de Sautuola’s most virulent critics, the French archaeologist Émile Cartailhac, published a monograph on Altamira in which he confessed to having been “blinded by some dangerous spirit of dogmatism.” Last summer, Altamira was once again under scrutiny, one of 11 Spanish caves that Bristol University archaeologists reevaluated using a new dating technique.

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