Last updated February 23, 2018 at 2:44 pm
The oldest known cave paintings show that the Neanderthals were thinking creatively 20,000 years before humans arrived on the scene.
Describing someone’s artistic endeavours as Neanderthal may not be quite the insult that it first appears.
An international scientific team has found that Neanderthals were knocking out cave paintings in Spain 20,000 years before modern humans arrived in Europe, and that this involved such sophisticated behaviour as the choosing of a location, planning of light source and mixing of pigments.
The findings also suggest that they thought symbolically, like modern humans, and might have the same artistic sense as we do. Or some of us at least.
How ‘human’ were Neanderthals?
“Soon after the discovery of the first of their fossils in the 19th century, Neanderthals were portrayed as brutish and uncultured, incapable of art and symbolic behaviour, and some of these views persist today,” says Professor Alistair Pike from the University of Southampton, the study’s co-director.
“The issue of just how human-like Neanderthals behaved is a hotly debated issue. Our findings will make a significant contribution to that debate.”
A team of researchers from the UK, Germany, Spain and France used uranium-thorium dating to analyse more than 60 carbonate samples from three cave sites in Spain – La Pasiega in the north-east, Maltravieso in the west and Ardales in the south-west.
All contain red (ochre) or black paintings of groups of animals, dots and geometric signs, as well as hand stencils, hand prints and engravings.
The paintings were found to date back 64,000 years to the Ice Age, when Neanderthals, a “sister” species to Homo sapiens, were Europe’s sole human inhabitants.
And it was not just a one-off accident, according to co-author Professor Paul Pettitt of Durham University, who notes that “Neanderthals created meaningful symbols in meaningful places”.
“We have examples in three caves 700km apart, and evidence that it was a long-lived tradition,” he says. “It is quite possible that similar cave art in other caves in Western Europe is of Neanderthal origin as well.”
The uranium-thorium method involves dating tiny carbonate deposits that have built up on top of the cave paintings. These contain traces of the radioactive elements uranium and thorium, which indicate when the deposits formed and therefore give a minimum age for whatever lies beneath.
Early symbolic artefacts, dating back 70,000 years, have been found in Africa but are associated with modern humans.
Other artefacts including cave art, sculpted figures, decorated bone tools and jewellery have been found in Europe, dating back 40,000 years. But researchers have concluded that these must have been created by modern humans who were spreading across Europe after their arrival from Africa.
There is evidence that Neanderthals in Europe used body ornamentation around 40,000 to 45,000 years ago, but many researchers have suggested this was inspired by modern humans who at the time had just arrived in Europe.
The study was led by the University of Southampton and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.
The paper was published in Science.