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.