In Brief

New Evidence that Neanderthals Made Art

by Mostafa Heddaya on September 2, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 6.21.28 PM

Figure 4 from the “A rock engraving made by Neanderthals in Gibraltar” report, published August 12, 2014 (screenshot via PNAS)

Researchers have uncovered further evidence that human ancestors may have begun producing cave art earlier than previously thought. A group of European archaeologists have published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences presenting “the first known example of an abstract pattern engraved by Neanderthals.” The pattern, discovered at the southern tip of Spain in Gorham’s Cave, Gibraltar and dating to between 38,500 and 30,500 years ago, could substantially expand our understanding of the genealogy of artistic expression, generally thought to have begun with the cave art of early Homo sapiens, not Neanderthals.

Clive Finlayson, director of the Gibraltar Museum and one of the researchers involved, told BBC News that the discovery “brings the Neanderthals closer to us, yet again.” Previous studies, the BBC adds in their report, have noted evidence of Neanderthal flutes, decorative accessories, and even art.

The earliest appearance of cave art has been dated elsewhere in Spain to approximately 40,000 years ago, a 2012 discovery that unseated France’s Chauvet cave paintings as the world’s oldest. And although modern humans appeared some 45,000 years ago, Finlayson added that they reached the Iberian peninsula later than other regions, bolstering the hypothesis that the Gibraltar discovery is original Neanderthal handiwork and not inspired by human contact.

Whether or not these most recent discoveries of marks can be considered art remains a point of contention, and the authors of the Gibraltar study specifically establish that the marks had to have been made intentionally.

Francesco d’Errico, who oversaw the experiments in the Gibraltar study and is research director of France’s Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in Bordeaux, told BBC News that the geological circumstances of the marks establish their intentionality.

“[Dolomite] is a very hard rock, so it requires a lot of effort to produce the lines,” d’Errico said.

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  • Simon

    Always astonishes me that even earlier art from the indigenous nations of modern Australia is dismissed, ignored or not mentioned because the title ‘earliest’ and ‘worlds oldest’ must be reserved for Europeans.

    • http://hragv.com/ Hrag Vartanian

      I thought the oldest Aboriginal art was 28,000 years old? http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/jun/18/rock-australia-art

      • Simon

        There’s evidence that paintings in the Kimberly are between 50 and 60 thousand years old, including some paintings which have glazed over with mm thick layers of quartz condensed out of the air, a very ancient process that is dateable and where the estimated 60K figure comes from. Unfortunately powers that be in the archeological world can’t stomach the fact as it appears that black people in Australia made art first instead of white Europeans. Barrup peninsula engravings, which have no legal protection and which vandals regularly destroy AND which a mining company was recently given permission to dynamite large areas of, are estimated to be at least 40 thousand years old possibly 50 thousand. Again, widely ignored because of racism basically. Can you imagine the uproar if world heritage French cave paintings had no legal protection and vandals were allowed to scrawl ‘legalise pot’ all over them, let alone mining companies be permitted by government to blow them up?

        • http://hragv.com/ Hrag Vartanian

          Can you link to some sources? We’d be happy to follow up.

  • rawbun

    Okay so they are “marks”.
    What makes them art? Is the image decipherable?

    • http://hragv.com/ Hrag Vartanian

      It is the patterning, which appears conscious rather than random markings.

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