Europe's First Artists Were Neanderthals, New Research Says

Ancient cave paintings turn out to be by Neanderthals, not humans

Ancient cave paintings turn out to be by Neanderthals, not humans

There's no fossil evidence of modern humans in Spain that long ago, says John Hawks a paleoanthropologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who wasn't involved in the research.

"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", said lead author Dr. Dirk Hoffmann, from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany.

The researchers said the cave painters were making "symbolic artifacts", whose value lay not in their practical use but in their symbolic use.

They occupy three sites at La Pasiega, Maltravieso and Ardales - situated up to 700 kilometres apart in different parts of Spain.

The caves were already well known for prehistoric animal paintings, hand stencils, and symbolic art - patterns of lines, clubs, and dots - all done in red and black pigments. According to the researchers, the rock walls were their canvasses.

A red hand stencil. The origins of such developments are likely to be far older than previously thought, perhaps as far back as the time of the last common ancestor of Homo sapiens and Neanderthals over half a million years ago. Image credits: H. Collado.

But recent advances in a technology called uranium/thorium dating has enabled scientists to determine the minimum age of paintings in limestone caves.

Measuring the relative levels of the two elements indicates how long it has taken for one to decay into the other. Ancient artists used mineral paints which do not contain organic matter and carbon, which usually assess the antiquity of certain artifacts, so their Dating was usually done indirectly, on the age of the sediments at the bottom of the cave or the peculiarities in the structure of implements, found near the drawings.

In another Spanish cave, detailed in a related study also released Thursday, researchers dated marine shells that had been dyed and then stored in larger shell containers.

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Researchers found these paintings are at least around 65,000 years old, predating the arrival of humans in Europe by some 20,000 years.

"That material culture, archaeologically visible manifestations, only appears after 200,000 years ago probably means that it is at a time when individual and social interactions became so complex that conventions, signs, and symbols became necessary for the transmission of information about status, territory, ethnicity, rights over the resources of land, etc.", Zilhão explained. Until now, a lack of suitable dating techniques meant that the chronology of early cave art was poorly understood, and as a result it was always attributed to modern humans. "It's packed with cave art", said Dr Hoffmann.

The common depiction of Neanderthals in popular culture is usually that of a brutish, often ape-like, humanoid character who has a degree of outward resemblance to modern humans, but relies nearly entirely on brawn, with very little brain power. Or possibly they may simply have been "assimilated" into the growing modern human population.

Archaeologists found these 115,000-year-old shell beads-the oldest personal ornaments known in the world.

"This is an incredibly exciting discovery which suggests Neanderthals were much more sophisticated than is popularly believed", said co-author Dr. Chris Standish, an archaeologist at the University of Southampton. The art is not a one-off accident.

"This is certainly just the beginning of a new chapter in the study of ice age rock art", says Gerd-Christian Weniger of the Foundation Neanderthal Museum Mettmann, one of the leaders of the Ardales excavations.

Until now, most scientists thought all cave paintings were the work of our species. These discoveries suggest that our reputedly boorish cousins were just as sophisticated as humans. To make them, Neanderthals would have needed skills like the ability to mix pigments.

Published today in the journal Science, the study reveals how an global team of scientists used a state-of-the-art technique called uranium-thorium dating to fix the age of the paintings as more than 64,000 years.

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