Neanderthals were artistic like modern humans, study suggests

Researchers have found the first major evidence that Neanderthals, rather than modern humans, created the world’s oldest known cave paintings - suggesting they may have had an artistic sense similar to our own.

An international study involving Durham University shows that paintings in three caves in Spain were created more than 64,000 years ago - 20,000 years before modern humans arrived in Europe.

This means that the Palaeolithic (Ice Age) cave art - including pictures of animals, dots and geometric signs - must have been made by Neanderthals, a ‘sister’ species to Homo sapiens, and Europe’s sole human inhabitants at the time. It also indicates that they thought symbolically, like modern humans.

More reliable dating techniques

The study reveals how 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.

Until now, cave art has been attributed entirely to modern humans, as claims to a possible Neanderthal origin have been hampered by imprecise dating techniques. However, uranium-thorium dating provides much more reliable results than methods such as radiocarbon dating, which can give false age estimates.

Researchers from the UK, Germany, Spain and France analysed more than 60 samples from three cave sites - La Pasiega (north-eastern Spain), Maltravieso (western Spain) and Ardales (south-western Spain). All three caves contain red (ochre) or black paintings of groups of animals, dots and geometric signs, as well as hand stencils, hand prints and engravings.

Evidence found in three caves

Study co-author Professor Paul Pettitt , a cave art specialist in the Department of Archaeology at Durham University, said: “Neanderthals were clearly creating meaningful symbols in meaningful places. The art is not a one-off accident or random graffiti.

“We have examples from three caves 700km apart, and evidence that this was a long lived tradition, in which the Neanderthals were the first humans to leave permanent, meaningful markings in deep caves.

“It is very possible that similar cave art in other caves in Western Europe, for so long assumed to have been the work of our own species, is also of Neanderthal origin,” said Professor Pettitt, who is also a member of the University’s Centre for Visual Arts and Culture.

The research was carried out by Durham and Southampton Universities in the UK, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, the University of Barcelona in Spain and the National Centre for Scientific Research in France, in collaboration with a number of other European institutions.

Sophisticated behaviour of cave artists

According to the researchers, creating the art must have involved such sophisticated behaviour as the choosing of a location, planning of light source and mixing of pigments.

The results provide very strong evidence that Neanderthals were behaving symbolically, and demonstrate that in this realm they were very close to our own abilities. Symbolic material culture, a collection of cultural and intellectual achievements handed down from generation to generation, has so far been convincingly attributed only to Homo sapiens.

Early symbolic artefacts such as pigment-coloured shell beads that served as body ornamentation, are documented for the Middle Stone Age in North and South Africa as early as 100,000 years ago but are associated with early members of our own species.

Artefacts attributed to modern humans

There is evidence in Europe for cave art, sculpted figures, decorated bone tools, and jewellery made of bone, tooth, ivory, shell or stone that dates back to the ‘Upper Palaeolithic Revolution’ after 40,000 years ago. These artefacts, researchers agree, were created by pioneer populations of modern humans as they spread across Europe after their arrival from Africa and the Near East.

Even where there is evidence of Neanderthal use of body ornamentation in the form of perforated animal teeth and bones that date back to the Châtelperronian culture of South West Europe around 40,000 to 45,000 years ago, many researchers have suggested this was not an independent Neanderthal innovation, but was inspired by contact with the newly arrived modern humans.

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

“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.”

Radioactive elements in mineral deposits

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.