64,000 years ago in Southern Europe artists conceptualized symbolic subjects, prepared media according to a preferred color palette, and painted complicated figures on illuminated cave walls.
But those (potentially tortured) artists weren’t Homo sapiens. They were Neanderthals.
Our extinct relatives from the Homo genus have long been the butt of jokes as dimwitted knuckle-draggers. But a paper recently published in the journal Science shows that the oldest cave art ever discovered, at three Spanish sites, consisting of a hand stencil, something that appears to be a ladder, and a series of red dots, was painted at least 64,000 years ago during the reign of Neanderthals, a good 20,000 years before modern humans had set foot anywhere in Europe.
The discovery erodes a major difference that scientists assumed relegated Neanderthals to an intellectual level below that of modern humans. The Neanderthals, it seems, were not only capable of thinking symbolically, they had enough urge to express themselves that they traveled underground to find suitable rock canvases for their art and carefully commit their ideas to paint.
The knuckle-draggers weren’t so different from us after all.
Scientists have been puzzled by Neanderthals almost since they were first discovered in the 19th century. They had thick, stocky builds, and pronounced, brutish brow ridges. Shortly after modern humans appear in the European fossil records, about 45,000 years ago, Neanderthals just as quickly disappear. On their way north from Africa, humans had developed sophisticated art forms and technology, and certainly seemed more intelligent than Neanderthals, at least based on what archaeologists had uncovered. It seemed likely that smarter humans pushed aside their less-developed cousins.
But eventually scientists learned Neanderthals had brains at least as large, if not larger, than modern humans. They cared for and buried their dead. They crafted simple jewelry and other body ornamentations. And, apparently, made their own symbolic art. Just like humans.
“The one criteria left that would have distinguished Neanderthals and early modern humans was the interest and need to draw symbols deep in the underground,” Marie Soressi, Leiden University in the Netherlands archaeologist told the Los Angeles Times.
The caves, at La Pasiega, Maltravieso, and Ardales, had long been known for their paintings. But researchers figured the art had been left by early modern humans.
Archaeologist João Zilhão of the University of Barcelona and an author of the recent study, along with her team, used a new dating method called uranium-thorium dating to determine the age of the paintings. The paint was made with ocher, a pigment that can’t be dated by traditional radiocarbon dating. But uranium-thorium dating measures calcitic deposits made on cave walls from trickling water. By determining the age of the deposits on top of the paint, scientists know that the paint applied below them is at least as old as the calcitic crust. In the cases of the Spanish caves, those deposits were made around 64,000 years ago.
Since modern humans were nowhere near Europe, Neanderthals must have been the painters.
“This constitutes a major breakthrough in the field of human evolution studies,” Will Roebroeks of Leiden University told the New York Times. “Neanderthal authorship of some cave art is a fact.”
Dr. Zilhão has since used that same dating method to try to figure the age of painted shells along the coast of Spain, and, in another article published this week in Science Advances argues that those shells were painted a full 115,000 years ago.
Bone jewelry assemblage found in Neanderthal cave in present-day Croatia.
That’s not only well before modern humans arrived in Europe—that’s some 20,000-40,000 years before modern humans were thought to have begun making art of their own anywhere.
Whatever the reason for the eventual human domination of the homo species over the Neanderthal, it’s becoming increasingly clear that it wasn’t because of a gulf of intelligence. Though it’s still unknown exactly why the Neanderthals disappeared, though they didn’t entirely leave the scene. It’s thought that humans of European or Asian ancestry have somewhere around 2 percent of Neanderthal DNA in their genes. There’s a little of that prehistoric artist in many of us.
Photo: P. Saura, Breuil et al.