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Stalagmites in the Sala de las Estrellas in the Spanish cave of Ardales (Malaga, Andalusia) showing traces of red pigment. (photos by Joao Zilhao; courtesy Francesco d’Errico)

In the traditional narrative of American art history, which values massive abstract paintings by white, male artists above almost anything else, Jackson Pollock is heralded as a pioneer, credited with revolutionizing the medium by splashing and dripping liquid pigments onto his canvases in what is vaguely known as “allover painting.” In reality, Pollock may have been late to the game — 60,000 years late, to be exact. A new study has confirmed that Neanderthals were splotching paint on rock surfaces long before Clement Greenberg could say, “that’s genius, bro.”

An international team led by Francesco D’Errico, an archaeologist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, found that the red ochre pigment on the stalagmites of the Ardales cave in Málaga, Spain, was applied by our very own extinct human relatives, likely using blowing and splattering techniques.

“Some red markings are intense and continuous. They may have been applied with a handful of a dense ochre paint,” D’Errico told Hyperallergic. “In others you see that a densely colored area is surrounded by fading droplets. This happens experimentally when you chew the ochre, mix it with saliva, and spit it on a wall.”

The claim that Neanderthals authored the markings is not new, first presented in a 2018 paper, but it was contested by some scientists who thought the cave may have been naturally pigmented. D’Errico and his team took geological samples and found that the texture of the pigments did not match those of the rest of the cave.

“We confirm that the paintings are not the result of natural processes and show that the composition of the paint is consistent with the artistic activity being recurrent,” says the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States.

The findings are especially significant because they challenge previously accepted timelines of early art, which cite the rock paintings of the Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cave, dating back over 30,000 years, as among the first ever made.

The markings found in Ardales are far from the intricate figurative designs made by prehistoric modern humans, however — the authors note that the pigments should not be thought of as “art” necessarily, but rather “the result of graphic behaviors intent on perpetuating the symbolic significance of a space.” Sounds like Abstract Expressionism!

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Valentina Di Liscia

Valentina Di Liscia is a staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Argentina, she studied at the University of Chicago and is currently working on her MA at Hunter College, where she received the...

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