Neanderthals have long had a reputation for being dimwits, but a new study suggests our ancient cousins were far more artistic than first thought.
Cave paintings of swirling dots, ladders, animals and outlines of hands- in vivid scarlet and black – have been discovered to be their handiwork, according to new research.
The cave paintings in Spain were previously thought to have been the work of our modern human ancestors, Homo sapiens.
The study suggests Neanderthals invented art 20,000 years before modern humans thought of daubing pictures of prehistoric bison on cave walls.
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Neanderthals have long had a reputation for being dimwits, but a new study suggests our ancient cousins were far more artistic than first thought. These scalariform (ladder shape) composed of red horizontal and vertical lines (centre left) date to older than 64,000 years and were made by Neanderthals, although experts once thought they were made by early humans
The art was found deep inside three separate caverns in Spain some 434 (700km) miles apart: La Pasiega in the north, Maltravieso in central Spain, and Ardales in the south.
Professor Alistair Pike, from the University of Southampton, one of the authors of the research, published in Science said: ‘Ever since Neanderthal fossils were found in the 19th century, they have had a bad press.
‘In fact, the original name for Neanderthals was proposed as Homo stupidus, the stupid human.
‘And people have portrayed them as incapable of symbolic thought.
‘What we have found here is evidence of Neanderthal painting. Not just smearing something on the wall, but painting something on the wall which represents something.’
Different examples of artwork were found deep inside three separate caverns in Spain some 434 miles (700km) apart: La Pasiega in the north, Maltravieso in central Spain, and Ardales in the south. Cave art in La Pasiega (pictured) dates to older than 64,000 years and was made by Neanderthals
The study suggests Neanderthals invented art 20,000 years before modern humans thought of daubing pictures of prehistoric bison on cave walls. This cave wall in Maltravieso with Neanderthal hand stencils is almost completely covered with calcite. It is more than 66,000 years old which pre-dates the existence of humans in the European region
Archaeologist and joint lead researcher Dr Chris Standish, from the University of Southampton, said: ‘Our results show that the paintings we dated are, by far, the oldest known cave art in the world, and were created at least 20,000 years before modern humans arrived in Europe from Africa – therefore they must have been painted by Neanderthals.’
Scientists previously thought it was an ‘impossible coincidence’ that Neanderthals were making cave art at the same time when ‘modern humans were already in or at the gates of Europe’.
The Neanderthals must have copied Homo sapiens, the thinking went.
Now study co-author Professor Paul Pettitt, from the University of Durham, said other cave art may now be found to be made by Neanderthal hands – rather than Homo sapiens.
Another Maltravieso Cave showing three hand stencils (circled). One has been dated to at least 66,000 years ago and must have been made by a Neanderthal. The enhanced colour of the photo shows the outline of the hands. The research team believe that the stencils indicate a distinct attempt at art
The journey of Neanderthals and the evolution of Homo sapiens was intertwined for thousands of years. The movement out of Africa and into Eastern Europe and Asia colonised the area. This graphic explains the various stages of our respective species’ journeys
Perforated shells found in sediments in Cueva de los Aviones, a separate cave in Spain. These date to between 115,000 and 120,000 years old and are symbols of Neanderthals decorating their bodies with accessories
He said: ‘Neanderthals created meaningful symbols in meaningful places. The art is not a one-off accident.
‘It’s in the depths of caves, where they have to be one assumes, for ritual purpose. This is outside of their normal living zone.’
He added: ‘It is quite possible that similar cave art in other caves in western Europe is of Neanderthal origin as well.’
The dating method involved sampling ultra-thin carbonate deposits built up over time on top of the paintings.
Scientists used a method more accurate than carbon dating involving measuring traces of the radioactive element uranium and thorium.
The cave paintings, made with red and black pigments, consist of groups of animals, dots and abstract geometric designs, as well as stencilled hand prints. They occupy three sites at La Pasiega, Maltravieso and Ardales – situated up to 700 kilometres apart in different parts of Spain
A shell with remnants of pigments found in Cueva de los Aviones. It dates to between 115,000 and 120,000 years ago and was dated using a cutting-edge form of Uranium-Thorium dating
By calculating the relative levels of both elements, scientists can work out precisely how much time has passed, as uranium transforms into thorium by a process of radioactive decay at a precise rate.
As the samples were on top, it indicates that what lies beneath must be older than the deposit.
And in a separate Spanish cave, at Cueva de los Aviones, in south-east Spain scientists have found even older evidence of early decorative art.
Researchers found seashells with drilled holes stained red for use as pendants – dating to 115,000 years ago.
Previous research has looked at the difference between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. It found that Neanderthal genes play roles in our susceptibility to eating disorders, schizophrenia and arthritis. Separate research found that Neanderthal DNA can drive our smoking habits, mood swings, and skin tone
Researchers drilled a core from the flowstone in Cueva de los Aviones for dating which would be sent back to the lab for Uranium-Thorium dating. It works on the same principle as radiocarbon dating but is more accurate
Again the shells can only be the work of Neanderthals, as Homo sapiens were not present.
The early impression of Neanderthals being primitive was based on a reconstruction of a skeleton by French researcher Marcellin Boule in 1911.
Critics later found that the bow-legged gorilla-like creature he created was not based on a healthy Neanderthal – but one with arthritis.
But the damage had already been done – and to be a Neanderthal remains an insult to this day.
Criticisms of Neanderthal’s limited brain power were made just last month – Professor Richard Coss, a psychologist and artist at the University of California suggested that Neanderthal’s lack of figurative art may have meant that they had poor hand-eye co-ordination – and were not as good at throwing spears.
Picture of Cueva de los Aviones which is partly eroded away. In the left corner is the remaining sediment section covered by a flowstone with a basal age of 115 thousand years ago. It was these caves which researchers used to date the Neanderthal cave art
This curtain formation in the Ardales cave has red pigment painted on it. Many areas of this stalagmite formation were painted by Neanderthals in at least two episodes – one before 65,000 years ago and another about 45,000 years ago
Neanderthals became extinct around 38,000 years ago for reasons that are still not clear.
Two leading theories are an inability to adapt to climate change and competition from our ancestors. Or possibly they may simply have been ‘assimilated’ into the growing modern human population.
Painting is the latest ability likely to be found to have been carried out by Neanderthals.
It is known that Neanderthals lived in large social groups, carried out burials, and survived in the tough conditions of the Ice Age.
Discoveries in Gorham’s cave in Gibraltar dating to 40,000 years ago show a far less sophisticated design – a simple criss-cross pattern engraved in the rocks like a noughts and crosses grid thought to be by Neanderthals – but there was no sign of paint.
The red scalariform symbol (left) has a minimum age of 64,000 years but it is unclear if the animals and other symbols were painted later. The red pigment found on this curtain (right) in the Ardales cave shows hominid interaction
This image shows calcite crust on top of the red scalariform sign. The Uranium-Thorium method dates the formation of the crust which gives a minimum age for the underlying painting
Research from earlier this week concluded that Neanderthals likely went extinct due to their poor hand-eye co-ordination.
Professor Richard Coss, a psychologist and artist at the University of California, said: ‘Neanderthals could mentally visualise 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.’
Researchers studying caves in Spain in an independent project found other examples of early Neanderthal artistic flare.
Dyed and decorated marine shells – items of assigned value that serve as proxies for the presence of language – date back to times before the known appearance of modern humans in the region.
Combined with the cave art found, the reports suggest that Neanderthals exhibited complex symbolic communication systems
This image shows Cueva de los Aviones, seen from the breakwater of Cartagena harbour. This region was one of three used in the study where ancient cave art was found
TDirk Hoffmann and Alistair Pike sampling calcite from a calcite crust on top of the red scalariform sign in La Pasieg. These specimens were transferred for laboratory testing and dating