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.
But more than that. If it is proven that Neanderthals were creating such art over 60,000 years ago, it could throw into question who exactly painted other caves at later dates. It has long been assumed that the stunning works found in Europe from 40,000 years onwards were created by Homo sapiens simply because we didn’t think Neanderthals were capable of such artistic output. Now, it might not be that straightforward.
To arrive at these new dates, the team have used a new technique called uranium-thorium dating. More precise than the traditional carbon dating, it relies on the fact that as water drips over the cave paintings, tiny bits of carbonate build up on the images. By scraping this away and dating the first layers of the carbonate, researchers can deduce that the images over which they lay must be older.
In this case, the carbonate comes in at 64,000 years old meaning that if the team is right, the paintings outdate modern humans’ arrival in Europe by a whopping 20,000 years. This, needless to say, is likely to be quite a controversial claim, and will face a great deal of scrutiny.
To add to the intrigue, the study has been released at the same time as another which suggests that Neanderthal art – in the form of pierced seashells and possibly body painting – goes back even further still.
A second paper, from the same team and using the same technique, has concluded that the remains of perforated shells, red and yellow pigments, and evidence that the Neanderthals who left them were mixing the colors inside the shells in a cave in Spain, date to an incredible 115,000 years old. Considering that the oldest evidence of Homo sapiens doing anything similar to this dates to just 70,000 years old, these findings could also be revelatory.
Indeed, it is likely that there is enough information between these two new studies to have palaeoanthropologists talking for a while now, with some incredible implications for the mental abilities of our ancient relatives if found to be true.