By using an improved method for radioactive dating, a recent study found that cave art at three different sites in Spain was produced by our close cousins, the Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) and not Humans (Homo sapiens). The art form was previously thought to be exclusive to our species but new evidence suggests that Neanderthals were the first cave artists in Europe. This sheds more light on their society, behaviour and intellectual capabilities.
You might think “A couple of badly drawn animals in a cave is no different from the drawings hung on a school classroom’s wall”, but what we don’t always understand is the symbolic significance of the paintings to the artists who drew them and the archeologists and anthropologists who study them. Art such as cave paintings suggest that our ancestors were not constantly hunting and gathering in order to stay alive but were thriving as a species and had time to develop abstract thoughts and symbolic representations. What we see as a collection of paintings may have been drawn as a blessings for hunters. Ceremonial images drawn as prayers for a bountiful expedition which would feed a tribe for the next few days. Perhaps a collection of locally found prey animals, teaching the next generation what to hunt and when. One can find many interpretations for the reason why our early ancestors took a stick and ground pigments to draw the world around them, a famous example being the Lascaux Cave in France which depicts bulls, horses and deer.
Until recently, all cave art found was immediately credited to be produced by our ancestors – anatomically modern humans who colonised Europe from Africa. But a joint project conducted by the University of Southampton and the Max Planck Institute of Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology discovered that the cave art consisting of animals, geometric patterns and dots at the three sites of La Pasiega (north-eastern Spain), Maltravieso (western Spain) and Ardales (south-western Spain) could not have been produced by humans but by Neanderthals.
The first thought that might come to your mind at the mention of the name “Neanderthal” may be a large, hairy individual with tattered hides for clothes, holding a wooden club and bashing mammoths left and right. Unfortunately, modern portrayals of Neanderthals in films and pop culture remain strongly similar to the description above. It is crucial to understand that, regardless of the fact that humans interbred and then successfully out-competed the Neanderthals, it does not make them any inferior or intellectually and technologically more backward than us. The findings in Spain suggest that Neanderthals, too, could comprehend abstract thought and convey it as art. An important aspect of the study is the accurate datings, which confirm that the art is indeed of Neanderthal origin.
A common technique for dating stone tools and cave artifacts is radiocarbon dating. But this has been known to give false readings and, at times, a very wide ranges of dates for the age of artifacts. The uranium-thorium method, used in the recent study, 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 is below them. Researchers took samples of a red pigment called ‘ochre’, which was abundant at all three sites. The study concludes that the paintings are roughly 64,800 years old, which makes them the earliest forms of cave art in Europe and pre-dates the arrival of Humans by almost 20,000 years. The reliable dating technique, along with the clear absence of Homo sapiens both suggest that the art was produced only by Neanderthals.
The lead author, Dirk Hauffmann comments,
The emergence of symbolic material culture represents a fundamental threshold in the evolution of humankind… Artifacts whose functional value lies not so much in their practical but rather symbolic use are proxies for fundamental aspects of human cognition as we know it.
This discovery gives us an insight into the mental capabilities of the Neanderthals. It suggests that they were able to not only think like us but also behave in a more human-like manner. It is still debatable to what extent they were like us but we know that they adopted human practices such as body ornaments. These ornaments were found at Neanderthal settlements but dated to be around 4o,000 years old, which puts them near the arrival of humans between 40,000 and 45,000 years ago. This means that we interacted with them in the sense of exchanging cultures but there is also evidence of interbreeding occurring as modern, 21st century humans of Eurasian ancestry have somewhere between one to four percent Neanderthal DNA in their genomes.
Study co-author Paul Pettitt, of Durham University, commented: “Neanderthals created meaningful symbols in meaningful places. The art is not a one-off accident.” The three sites mentioned previously are situated nearly 700 kilometres from each other, thus suggesting that the concept of cave art was shared and widespread, at least in the area of Spain where the caves a situated. This leads to the questions: Are there other caves in Europe where Neanderthals painted on cave walls? Radioactive dating of caves, rather than Radiocarbon, could mean that some cave artists who have been misattributed as Homo sapiens will have their masterpieces revised and examined again, potentially be credited as being those of Homo neanderthalensis, instead.
This discovery is bound to change our perspective of Neanderthals as intellectually and technologically inferior into one of appreciation of a different kind of humanity. Sadly, one that we will never have the opportunity to experience. Although Neanderthals did not survive the ultimate battle for survival, we see remnants of their presence on cave walls and in our own DNA.
The research was supported by the Natural Environment Research Council, the National Geographic Society, the Max Planck Society, and a Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award.
Click here for the report published in Science.