Neanderthals – The World’s First Artists

Last year, the world’s oldest cave art was found. Many of you reading this may think that this is all fake, but a team of archaeologists found these paintings in a Spanish cave called El Castillo, meaning ‘castle’ in Spanish, as well as 10 other caves in Northern Spain.

Cave art - 30,000 - 40,000 year old
Cave art – 30,000 – 40,000 year old

Archaeologists believe that these crimson paintings may not have been created by humans, but by Neanderthals. They are thought to have been living in Europe until 30,000 or 40,000 years ago and modern humans arrived around the same time the Neanderthals died out.

Scientists have doubted for a very long time whether Neanderthals were capable of creating symbolic art. But since some new evidence has come to light over the recent years, that opinion had started to change. The evidence that came about last year of patterns of dots, hands and animals were found painted on the cave walls and are now know as the world’s oldest cave art, dating back to more than 40,800 years ago, taking the lead over France’s Chauvet cave paintings believed to be at least 37,000 years old.

Alistair Pike, the study’s lead author and archaeologist at the University of Bristol and his team slowly worked out the dates by using a method that relies on knowing the rates of decay in uranium – specifically in calcium deposits that had formed over the paint. The mineral based paint that was used cannot be dated because it does no contain uranium nor the carbon need for radiocarbon dating.

These findings in Spain are not the first, earlier last year, archaeologists found a 42,000 year old Neanderthal cave painting in Malaga, Spain, but this evidence is controversial according to Pike. Apparently this evidence came about after they dated some charcoal from a fire on the cave floor and then linked the dating to the paintings on the walls.

“All that shows is that someone lit a fire in the cave 42,000 years ago, but they’ve linked it to the paintings. And we think that’s absolutely mad”, said Pike.

Although opinions are changing, Paul Bahn, a cave art expert who is a member of the Archaeological Institute of America said that many scholars still consider Neanderthals to be brutish savages but believes that almost all objective scholars now fully accept Neanderthal art.

Study co-author Joao Zilhao went a step further in suggesting that there is no distinction between Neanderthals and modern humans if they are proven to be responsible for the art. It adds to the evidence that Neanderthals were a European racial variant of Homo sapiens and that they are not a distinct species and the new findings will help narrow the distance between the cultural evolution of Neanderthals and modern humans.

So is this a giant leap for Neanderthal kind? Although most of the paintings were stylistically simple disks and hand stencils, the study team also found figurative art of animals mainly horses and bison, which dates to after the extinction of Neanderthals. Study team member Paul Pettitt of the University of Sheffield, said that it is possible that the dots and any non-figurative arts were created by Neanderthals and the paintings of the animals by Homo sapiens.

I think this is a true and possibly correct statement to make. Maybe Neanderthals did paint the most simplest of art but this lead onto the Homo sapiens creating the images of the animals because they are more developed physically as well as mentally.
The supposed differences between the two races which are now linked with the paintings is the talk of a debate over what it means to be human – or a Homo sapien. There is a theory that it was an acceleration or cultural innovations that allowed humans to move into the territory that was occupied by the Neanderthals. But a question was raised of why this major cultural leap occurred so suddenly.

For modern humans, cave paintings may have been a part of the cultural package alongside musical instruments and sculptures of animals and humans. This research shows that our newly discovered evolutionary relatives, which have been considered as less intelligent than humans, are truly sophisticated thinks which were capable of social planning, symbolism and empathy.

Jess Phillips writes for This is Bingham