Scientists Who Doubt Neanderthal Art Must Reckon With New Evidence From These Sweet Cave Paintings

Back in 2012, archaeologists concluded that a series of cave paintings in Spain were created by Neanderthals, not early humans as was previously assumed. Critics complained about the dating method used, and more contentiously, claimed that only modern humans had the capacity for symbolic thought. Now, using an updated dating technique, scientists have shown yet again that Neanderthals are the most likely source of the paintings — but will it be enough to finally dispel outdated notions of Neanderthal intelligence?

La Pasiega, section C, cave wall with paintings. The red vertical and horizontal lines date back 64,000 years, and were almost certainly painted by Neanderthals. (Image: P. Saura)

Using uranium-thorium dating, scientists from the University of Southampton, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, and other institutions have shown that ancient cave paintings inside three northern Spanish caves were produced no earlier than 64,000 years ago. That’s a full 20,000 years before modern humans arrived in Europe, which means the paintings were most likely made by Neanderthals, whose ancestors, Homo erectus, left Africa around 1.81 million years ago.

What’s more, the finding demonstrates, perhaps conclusively this time, that Neanderthals had the capacity for symbolic thought — a cognitive trait once thought exclusive to Homo sapiens. The ability to represent objects outside the mind, this study suggests, was likely passed down to Neanderthals and modern humans from a common ancestor.

Maltravieso hand stencils, with a minimum established age of 66,000 years. (Image: H. Collado)

Maltravieso hand stencils, with a minimum established age of 66,000 years. (Image: H. Collado)

The red and black paintings, which include representations of animals, dots, geometric signs and hand stencils, are located in three Spanish caves, La Pasiega, Maltravieso, and Ardales, which are 700km apart. Archaeologists have been studying these paintings for years, but because they couldn’t be accurately dated, many simply assumed that modern humans must have been responsible for their decoration.

Neanderthals, it’s been long held, weren’t sophisticated thinkers, and they lacked the ability for abstract thought. And in fact, a study came out just two weeks ago claiming that Homo sapiens prevailed in Eurasia because Neanderthals couldn’t draw. The new study, published today in Science, shows that Neanderthals were very much capable of producing cave art, and by consequence had the capacity for symbolic behaviour.

The lack of consensus around the origin date has a lot to do with the limits of the technique traditionally used to date rock art: radiocarbon dating.

“We have only been dating cave art directly since the 1990s, and that was originally always by the radiocarbon method, which can only date organic material, namely charcoal drawings,” Paul Bahn, author of The First Artists: In Search of the World’s Oldest Art, told Gizmodo. “We were powerless to date drawings in manganese or ochre — inorganic materials — or engravings. But the calcite-dating method allows us to obtain minimum ages for these other drawings if they have some calcite formed on top of them.”

Bahn, who wasn’t involved in the new study (but he has collaborated with one of its authors), says this new dating method, called uranium-thorium dating, has been used for decades by geologists, but it’s only in recent years that archaeologists have tried to obtain dates for cave art from it, and with “very exciting results.”

Indeed, the uranium-thorium dating of isotope samples is considered very reliable, and it can be used to determine the age of calcium carbonate formations up to a half million years old. In this case, the archaeologists analysed red ochre carbonite, consisting of 60 different samples of less than 10mg each, to reach minimum ages of between 64,000 to 66,000 years for the art.

A 1913 drawing of Panel 78 in La Pasiega. The red scalariform, or ladder symbol, is at least 64,000 years old, but it's not known if the animals and other symbols were painted later.

A 1913 drawing of Panel 78 in La Pasiega. The red scalariform, or ladder symbol, is at least 64,000 years old, but it’s not known if the animals and other symbols were painted later.

“Our results show that the paintings we dated are, by far, the oldest known cave art in the world, and were created at least 20,000 years before modern humans arrived in Europe from Africa — therefore they must have been painted by Neanderthals,” said study co-lead author and University of Southampton archaeologist Chris Standish in a statement.

Now, it’s theoretically possible that modern humans were in the area around this time — theoretically being the key word. Our species, Homo sapiens, emerged 300,000 years ago and they entered into what is now the Middle East between 175,000 to 200,000 years ago.

But there’s no archaeological or palaeontological evidence to support the presence of modern humans in Europe prior to 44,000 years ago, as Standish points out. By contrast, we know that Neanderthals were all over Europe during this period of pre-history. But like previous efforts to pin the art to Neanderthals, there’s bound to be a backlash.

“All dating methods are subject to caveats, but this project has been carried out by the top experts in the field, so I feel sure its results are valid and reliable,” said Bahn. “However, they will doubtless be rejected — as were the team’s Spanish results in 2012 — by the dinosaurs who refuse to change their beliefs, and by some French colleagues who reject any cave art dates earlier than their declared age of the art in Chauvet Cave (circa 36,000 years ago), which is hopelessly wrong.”

That Neanderthals were capable of producing this art should not come as a surprise. If anything, this new study is actually quite underwhelming in terms of what it’s telling us about Neanderthals and what they were capable of.

“There is nothing in this paper to get amazed or too much astonished,” Michel Lorblanchet, a co-author of the new study and the Director of Research at DNRS in France, told Gizmodo. “Neanderthal people — like Homo erectus before them — regularly used pigments (red ochre was first used around one million years ago). They had body painting, necklaces, they had tools which are works of art [unto themselves], they started to produce sculptures like the La Roche-Cotard Mask, and they occupied deep caves some 270,000 years ago. Neanderthals also had [spiritual] beliefs — they [buried] their dead with offerings.”

Lorblanchet says prehistory is “always a battle against old ideas,” and that his team is “establishing bit by bit the fact that art began very early and that Neanderthals began to paint on cave walls.”