The fine art of the Neanderthals

A detail of the panel of hands in the El Castillo cave in Spain, created 40800 years ago by Neanderthals. (Pedro Saura, AP)

A detail of the panel of hands in the El Castillo cave in Spain, created 40800 years ago by Neanderthals. (Pedro Saura, AP)

Several times in the past 10 years scientists have had to rewrite the textbooks on Neanderthals, the last species of human to go extinct. Once the archetype for primitive, uncivilised behaviour, the species, illuminated through fossil excavations and, lately, analysis of their genome, has emerged as being not too dissimilar from our own. 

Contrary to their dim-witted image, Neanderthals have been found to have used tools, worn jewellery and  interbred with our Homo sapiens ancestors to such an extent that 4% of every modern European’s genome is traceable to Neanderthal origins.

Now comes what could be the final nail in the coffin of the “unintelligent Neanderthals” myth: they might have been the first species to paint in caves.

Using state-of-the-art techniques, scientists have dated cave paintings at 11 locations in north Spain, including the Unesco World Heritage sites of Altamira, El Castillo and Tito Bustillo. Samples from 50 paintings of different styles were collected and the scientists discovered that a red disc on the wall of the El Castillo cave had to be more than 40800 years old.

“This is currently Europe’s oldest dated art by at least 4000 years,” said Alistair Pike of the University of Bristol, who led the research. “We know the modern humans arrived in Europe between 42000 and 41000 years ago.” Nearby hand stencils, formed by blowing paint against a hand pressed against a cave wall, were at least 37300 years old. The results were published last week in the journal Science.

European brand of Homo sapiens
Neanderthals arrived in Europe about 250000 years ago and, if the dates of the cave paintings at El Castillo are correct, it is probable that they made them. “Perhaps we should start thinking of [Neanderthals] as the European brand of Homo sapiens, morphologically different from what we call the modern humans in Africa,” said Joao Zilhao of the University of Barcelona, an author on the paper. “But they were sapient people as well – that is probably the implication of the last decade of results.”

Already, symbolic culture has been shown to have existed among the Neanderthals, with 50000-year-old evidence indicating body painting and jewellery decoration made from bones, teeth, ivory and marine shells at sites in France.

If Neanderthals were decorating their caves, it might mean that language and advanced cognition were present in the human lineage further back than suspected – perhaps since the time of Neanderthals’ and ­modern humans’ last common ancestor, who lived at least half a million years ago.

Building a reliable chronology for cave art is difficult because the primary dating method, the radiocarbon technique, is not suitable for engravings or paintings made purely with mineral pigments. And the availability of just tiny samples means the effects of contamination are magnified.

Zilhao and Pike used a different method. Over time the paintings had built up a thin crust of calcium carbonate. The crusts held radioactive uranium, the element that decays to thorium. Measurements of the build-up of thorium could reveal how long ago those crusts formed and, because they were on top of the paintings, indicate a minimum age for the drawings.

To prove definitively the involvement of Neanderthals in cave art creation, scientists will need to find and date samples from more caves using the new technique. If there are paintings predating the arrival of modern humans in Europe – that is, older than 42000 years old – it will be hard to doubt that Neanderthals were the world’s first cave artists.
Pike said the most exciting thing about the possibility that the El Castillo cave had Neanderthal art was that anyone could walk in and see a Neanderthal hand on the wall. “And this is something that had been invisible to archaeology until we worked out where to look.” – © Guardian News & Media 2012

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