Neanderthals: The First Artists?

In a breaking news bonanza, scientists today reported that Europe’s first cave artists were Neanderthals, and thus “had the cognitive capacity to create art”—elevating them above and beyond the old stereotype of knuckle-dragging cavemen.

Neanderthals apparently painted the walls of three caves in Spain, using art and symbols—abilities that many assumed were uniquely human.

According to Science magazine, the evidence comes in the dating of the paintings—outlines of a hand, arrays of lines and a painted cave formation—which appear to be nearly 65,000 years old, at least 20,000 years before scientists think modern humans reached Europe.

“Many of my colleagues are going to be stunned,” said anthropologist Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. “People saw cave painting as a major gap between Neanderthals and modern humans. This discovery reduces the distance.”

In today’s New York Times, University of Barcelona archaeologist João Zilhão adds, “When you have symbols, then you have language.”

In National Geographic, Zilhão says the new finds and dating information—which include beads made out of seashells—are “the oldest such objects of personal ornamentation known to this day anywhere in the world. They predate by 20 to 40 thousand years anything remotely similar known from the African continent. And they were made by Neanderthals. Do I need to say more?”

Here are the links to the actual studies released today—from Science, and from Science Advances.

The photographs released in today’s studies are by Pedro Saura, whose images of the Cave of Atamira were published in a book almost 20 years ago.

Back in 2012, NPR had reported on the possibility that the cave paintings weren’t made by humans, but not until today was that educated guess confirmed.

ORBITER will continue following this story as new facts are released. In the meantime, you might need to come up with another insult—“Neanderthal” might suggest more Picasso and less Fred Flintstone.

3/1/18 UPDATE: Science Friday talks to study co-author Chris Standish, an archaeologist at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, and Harvard archaeologist Christian Tryon, who was not affiliated with the new research, about what the cave art might suggest about the similarities between Neanderthal and human cognitive abilities.

(Photo: Pedro Oliva / Shutterstock. Note: Image is not from Thursday’s breaking news, but an older photo of a cave painting of Pena Escrita. Fuencaliente. Ciudad Real.)
Contributing Editor, ORBITER magazine