Study challenges our conceptions about Neanderthals

By Hannah Drew

Researchers have found the first conclusive evidence that Neanderthals, rather than modern humans, were the artists of the world’s oldest cave paintings. The international study involving archaeologists from Durham University is the most persuasive example yet of sophisticated Neanderthal behaviour.

The team of archaeologists discovered that paintings in three Spanish caves were crafted more than 64,000 years ago. This means that they could only have been created by Neanderthals, Europe’s sole inhabitants at the time.

Until now, cave art has solely been attributed to Homo sapiens

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

Until now, cave art has solely been attributed to Homo sapiens. Any challenges to this assumption were hindered by imprecise dating techniques. Most cave paintings lack organic residues that can be dated by the decay of carbon isotopes, often resulting in unreliable age estimates.

The study, published in Science, describes how scientists used a state-of-the-art technique called uranium-thorium dating to find the age of the parietal art. The method is based on testing the thin layer of calcite that forms when groundwater seeps across a wall painting over millennia. This water contains a uranium isotope that decays into thorium. Measuring the ratio of uranium and thorium isotopes can give the age of the calcite, revealing the age of the painting beneath.

Researchers from the UK, Germany, Spain and France analysed over 60 samples from three cave sites across Spain: Ardales, La Pasiega, and Maltravieso. All three caves contained ochre or black paintings of geometric signs, hand prints, engravings and abstract animal depictions found to be over 64,000 years old.

The results indicate that Neanderthals exhibited sophisticated behaviour. Shannon McPherron of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, whose work has challenged common conceptions about Neanderthals said: “the findings have shattered my model of Neanderthal behaviour.”

The results indicate that Neanderthals exhibited sophisticated behaviour

The artefacts demonstrate that Neanderthals possessed cognitive capacities and technical abilities similar to our own. To the shock of many researchers, the species developed these without influence from Homo sapiens.

Until now European symbolic material culture, such as cave art and decorated bone tools, has only been attributed to our own species. These artefacts are widely accepted as being created by pioneer populations of Homo sapiens migrating from Africa and the Levant.

Any evidence of Neanderthal symbolic culture, such as decorative perforated bones, was previously thought to be inspired by these newly arrived humans. Researchers must now accept these artefacts as examples of sophisticated Neanderthal innovation developed 20,000 years before we even entered Europe.

The study challenges the common misconception of Neanderthals as intellectually inferior, brute cavemen. João Zilhão of the University of Barcelona, an author of the paper, has spent years arguing that Neanderthals were the “mental equals” of modern humans.

Just like us, the extinct hominids utilised their natural resources to create paintings – vehicles for symbolic expression – for purposes we can only begin to imagine.

Photograph: CD Standish, AWG, Pike, DL Hoffmann

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