Deep in three caves on the Iberian Peninsula, ancient hominins mixed red ochre into paint and, after first deciding where the flickering light from their fire shone best on the dank, dripping walls, began to draw.
Long assumed to have been sketched by our own direct ancestors after they spread across Europe around 40,000 years ago, new research suggests that the hand stencils, pictures of animals, dots, and geometric designs are actually far older. This suggests that they were instead created by our cousins, the Neanderthals.
“Our dating results show that the cave art at these three sites in Spain is much older than previously thought,” explained the University of Southampton’s Alistair Pike, who co-authored the study published in Science. “With an age in excess of 64,000 years it predates the earliest traces of modern humans in Europe by more than 20,000 years. The cave art must thus have been created by Neanderthals.”
If the new dates stack up, then the implications are huge.
Why it was that only humans seemingly painted elaborate and beautiful artwork on the walls of caves has been a long-standing mystery. Neanderthal art has been identified before, but in comparison to that which has been attributed to our own ancestors, it is often seen as incredibly rudimentary and simplistic. This study significantly challenges that notion, and could even have further ramifications.
It would mean that our belief that only humans were mentally capable of creating symbolic artwork and jewelry is severely misplaced, although this notion has been on the wane for a while. It suggests that certain aspects of cognition that we thought were unique to humans were in fact shared with our European cousins, potentially even that their cognitive abilities were equivalent to our own.