Science

Neanderthals had an eye for art, according to a new study of cave paintings in Spain

Three hand stencils found in Maltravieso Cave. One has been dated to at least 66,000 years ago and must have been made by a Neanderthal, researchers say.
H. Collado
Someone traced his or her hand here tens of thousands of years ago. One of the three hand stencils found in Maltravieso Cave has been dated to at least 66,000 years ago and must have been made by a Neanderthal, researchers say.

Neanderthals, rather than humans, created the world’s oldest known cave paintings, according to new research that suggests our extinct cousins, whose name over the years has become synonymous with “unintelligent,” had greater abilities than previously known.

Paintings found in three caves in Spain were created more than 64,000 years ago, 20,000 years before modern humans arrived in Europe, meaning they must have been made by Neanderthals, the University of Southampton said in a statement.

The research, conducted by an international team led by the British university and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, was published Thursday in the journal Science.

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Cave art had been previously attributed entirely to modern humans. But a state-of-the art technique, uranium-thorium dating, was used to zero in on the date of paintings found in the caves in La Pasiega, Maltravieso, and Ardales, the university said.

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The caves contained red or black paintings of groups of animals, dots, and geometric signs, as well as hand stencils, and shapes scratched into the wall, the university said.

The discovery was likely to shed new light on Neanderthals, who got a bad name when their existence was first discovered but have been getting a better reputation in recent years.

“Soon after the discovery of the first of their fossils in the 19th century, Neanderthals were portrayed as brutish and uncultured, incapable of art and symbolic behaviour, and some of these views persist today,” said Alistair Pike, an archeological sciences professor at the University of Southampton.

“The issue of just how human-like Neanderthals behaved is a hotly debated issue. Our findings will make a significant contribution to that debate,” he said in the statement.

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Chris Standish, an archeologist at the university, said in the statement that the discovery suggested that “Neanderthals were much more sophisticated than is popularly believed.”

The researchers said creating the art also must have involved such sophisticated behavior as choosing a location, planning a light source, and mixing colors, according to the statement.

The researchers said the cave painters were making “symbolic artifacts,” whose value lay not in their practical use but in their symbolic use.

Older symbolic artifacts, dating back 70,000 years, have been found in Africa but are associated with modern humans, who overlapped with Neanderthals, the statement said.

Paul Pettitt of Durham University, another member of the team, said in the statement, “Neanderthals created meaningful symbols in meaningful places. The art is not a one-off accident. We have examples in three caves 700 [kilometers] apart, and evidence that it was a long-lived tradition. It is quite possible that similar cave art in other caves in Western Europe is of Neanderthal origin as well.”

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In a related study in the journal Science Advances, researchers, looking at a different cave in Spain, examined dyed and decorated marine shells and found that they dated back before the time humans arrived in the region, meaning they must have belonged to Neanderthals.

The new research serves “to reinforce what has been emerging for some time, that the Neanderthals were cognitively, creatively, socially, and linguistically very similar to modern humans,” said Eric Trinkaus, a professor of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis who is an expert on early humans.

“They were all part of a pattern across the Old World indicating the emergence at that time of more complicated human behavior, whatever their bones may have looked like. It is time to finally and completely stop treating the Neanderthals as semi-human and think of them as sophisticated past people living in a difficult world,” Trinkaus said in an e-mail.