Neanderthals – not modern humans – were responsible for the world’s oldest cave art, according to researchers

Neanderthals have long been portrayed as brutish and uncultured, but following the groundbreaking discovery that these archaic humans created the world’s oldest known cave paintings, researchers hope to put this idea to bed for good.

Neanderthals – not modern humans – were responsible for the world’s oldest cave art, according to researchers

A study led by the University of Southampton and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology shows that paintings in three caves in Spain were created more than 64,000 years ago. Because this dates them 20,000 ahead of when modern humans arrived in Europe, they must, by definition, have been made by Neanderthals, a ‘sister’ species to Homo sapiens.

Until now, it was believed all cave paintings had been produced by modern humans, not least because available methods made it impossible to precisely date them any older than that. Neanderthals were also assumed to be too unsophisticated to produce such artwork. The new study instead highlights that they were capable of thinking symbolically and producing cave art.

The research was possible thanks to a state-of-the-art technique called uranium-thorium dating. An international team of scientists, whose findings are published in the journal Science, used this method to date very small carbonate deposits that accumulated on top of the cave paintings.

fig_1_la_pasiega

La Pasiega, section C. Cave wall with paintings. The scalariform (ladder shape) composed of red horizontal and vertical lines dates to older than 64,000 years and was made by Neanderthals. (Credit: P. Saura)

More specifically, the carbonate deposits contain traces of the radioactive elements uranium and thorium, which can indicate when the deposits formed. Once you know the age of the deposits, you have a minimum age for whatever lies beneath.

“This is an incredibly exciting discovery which suggests Neanderthals were much more sophisticated than is popularly believed”, said joint lead author Dr Chris Standish, an archaeologist at the University of Southampton.

“Our results show that the paintings we dated are, by far, the oldest known cave art in the world, and were created at least 20,000 years before modern humans arrived in Europe from Africa – therefore they must have been painted by Neanderthals.”

It should also contribute to the debate about how similarly our archaic ancestors behaved to modern humans. Joint lead author Dirk Hoffmann, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology explained: “The emergence of symbolic material culture represents a fundamental threshold in the evolution of humankind. It is one of the main pillars of what makes us human.

“Artefacts whose functional value lies not so much in their practical but rather in their symbolic use are proxies for fundamental aspects of human cognition as we know it.”

When Alphr asked the researchers if they thought their discovery might help to eliminate the idea that Neanderthals were wholly brutish, Standish said: “We certainly hope it’ll be a big step forward in improving their public image! Ever since their initial discovery, they’ve been portrayed as uncultured and behaviourally inferior to ‘modern’ humans, and this probably stems from their initial discovery and the fact their skeletal remains look different to ours.

“But understanding behaviour is much harder, it can’t be truly understood by simply looking at their skeletons and we need to look for other kinds of evidence. Recent research has told us that Neanderthals prepared pigment, made shell beads, and used talons and feathers, all presumably for personal adornment in the same way that ‘modern’ humans do. The idea that they also made cave art is a major addition to this and demonstrates that whilst they weren’t anatomically modern, they were behaviourally modern.”

Although they stopped existing as a distinct population between 37,000 and 43,000 years ago, DNA evidence shows that modern humans and Neanderthals interbred. Indeed, at least 50% of Neanderthal DNA is still around today, so they are our ancestors in the truest sense. Perhaps it’s about time we started recognising them as such?

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