Neanderthals have done it again. They’ve reminded us Homo sapiens that we’re not as creative, original, or special as we’ve thought for the past 150 years. Last week, archaeologists published two astonishing reports that provide the most compelling evidence to date that our evolutionary cousins not only had the cognitive wherewithal to create art — specifically cave paintings — but they also did so well before modern humans entered the European Pleistocene.
In the journal Science, an international team of archaeologists reported that three caves in southeastern Spain — La Pasiega, Maltravieso, and Ardales — contain cave art that’s at least 64,800 years old. These sites are not new or unknown to archaeologists. But pinning down exactly when the cave art was painted has been a problem for decades. (The La Pasiega panel was originally sketched by researchers in 1913.) Dating experts, working in conjunction with archaeologists, developed a new set of techniques, carefully sampling geological material near the art in order to pin down the most likely time of painting.
The results have rocked the archaeological world, because the paintings appear to predate the arrival of modern humans in Europe by 20,000 years. In other words, the art comes from a time when the area was only occupied by Neanderthals. “It’s exciting to see dates that potentially reflect a long-term tradition or stable ‘artistic’ behavior amongst Neanderthals,” Felix Riede, an evolutionary archaeologist unaffiliated with the studies, told Hyperallergic in an email.
The cave paintings show simple but elegant motifs: a red linear pattern in La Pasiega, red-painted stalagmites and stalagtites in Andales, and, perhaps most impressively, a hand stencil in Maltravieso. These cave paintings suggest that Neanderthals had the ability to think symbolically and abstractly. Their apparent cognitive sophistication has also led researchers to speculate about Neanderthal language, and other behaviors that aren’t preserved in the fossil record. (Prior to this cave painting, the only other example of Neanderthal cave art was a significantly younger etching from Gibraltar, dated to roughly 40,000 year ago.) The Spanish cave art may be the oldest paintings in the world.
The archaeologists note that the motifs of lines and handprints are common in many cave sites across Europe, and these motifs are not unique to southern Spain. What is unique about the La Pasiega site is that, for the first time, archaeologists demonstrated that different portions were painted at different times: the dots and lines are older than the animal figures, suggesting that later humans added to what Neanderthals had painted. “This raises the possibility that there’s a hidden layer of Neanderthal art in many more sites, underneath Upper Paleolithic additions,” said Rebecca Wragg Sykes, a Paleolithic archaeologist. “That is an intriguing notion: the first Homo sapiens entering Europe did not find ‘empty’ caves,” Sykes added. “Were they then moved to add to the record themselves?”
At a fourth art-infused site in southern Spain, Cueva de los Aviones, archaeologists excavated perforated marine shells, red and yellow pigment colorants, and shell containers that show residues of pigment mixtures, all of which date to 115,000 years ago. Their findings were published in Science Advances. Taken together, these artifacts indicate that Neanderthals were coloring and piercing seashells, perhaps to string together as jewelry. Again, these dates show indisputable Neanderthal creativity, long before Homo sapiens made their way to Europe.
Neanderthals have long been caricatured as troglodyte cavemen. Over the last 20 years, however, archaeologists have opened up to the possibility that Neanderthals could be more than just an evolutionary foil — a species used to celebrate humankind’s evolutionary “success.” Evidence of sophisticated tools, burials, and organized use of space has slowly accumulated at a plethora of sites across Europe and the Middle East. New discoveries continue to challenge our conception of Iberian Neanderthals. “This is an exciting time to be a Palaeolithic archaeologist,” said Karen Rubens, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, where the lead author of the two reports, Dirk L. Hoffman, is based.
Humans have long thought that we held a monopoly on creating abstract art — that it was part of what separated us from other hominin species. But current archaeological evidence tells us that we’ll need to keep trying if we want to differentiate ourselves from our evolutionary cousins.