Thousands of years ago, in the dark depths of many European caves, our ancient ancestors daubed the walls with beautiful images, depicting scenes that today we can only imagine. Great mammoths march across the rock faces as cave lions skulk in the shadows or a herd of wild horses flicker with movement.
We weren’t the only species of human to be living in these caves all that time ago, coming face to face with these mighty prehistoric beasts. Neanderthals are also known to have bunkered down in these natural shelters, but curiously, it seems that despite looking and presumably living like us, they did not create these vivid renderings of the world around them.
This has long been a mystery to anthropologists studying both hominins, and now one group have come up with their own theory as to why. Publishing their paper in the journal Evolutionary Studies In Imaginative Culture, the researchers suggest that – in a somewhat leftfield reasoning – our artistic talent might derive from the way we hunted.
They argue that as humans evolved in an environment in which the large prey animals were more wary of us as hunters, we were forced into an evolutionary arms race where we had to develop new ways of hunting, such as throwing spears. Neanderthals, on the other hand, were living in an environment where the animals had no natural fear of hominins, and thus never progressed beyond the more simplistic thrusting spears used at close range.
The authors propose that as early humans learned to throw spears, it enhanced the region of their brain that involves visual imagery and motor coordination. This, they say, was key to when they then moved into Europe and started recording their world on the walls of caves. Contentiously, they also say this is why humans were more intelligent.
“Neanderthals could mentally visualize previously seen animals from working memory, but they were unable to translate those mental images effectively into the coordinated hand-movement patterns required for drawing,” said study author Richard Coss, in a statement.
This research is likely to cause a bit of controversy, not least because many now consider the idea that Neanderthals were less intelligent and more brutish to be an outdated point of view. Neanderthals did produce their own art and have their own developed culture.
Excavations in caves from Gibraltar, where it is thought the last Neanderthals survived, have revealed not only a rare example of Neanderthal art – which is also the oldest European art to date – but also evidence that they may have been crafting elaborate headdresses from the wings of vultures.