Spain: Cave Paintings Reveal Neanderthals Were 'Sophisticated'

Spain: Cave Paintings Reveal Neanderthals Were 'Sophisticated'

Can it be traced to the last common ancestor of modern humans and Neanderthals? They were also much more sophisticated than most people give them credit for.

"Recent years have seen studies that show Neanderthals made extensive use of ornamental objects, potentially built structures, and on the whole, appear far more capable of symbolic cognitive processes than has historically been regarded", Adam Van Arsdale, associate professor of anthropology at Wellesley College, told AFP.

The scientists analysed more than 60 carbonate samples taken from the paintings.

Of course, once humans arrived in Europe, they too began ornately painting cave walls.

Featured image is panel 3 in Maltravieso Cave showing 3 hand stencils (center right, center top and top left). Another Maltravieso-cave (western Spain) petrograph shaped like a hand dates back at least 66,700 years.

He said the findings reflect "some impressive technical developments in dating techniques in cave contexts, issues that have always posed a challenge for our understanding the timing of key events in human evolution". This dating technique relies on analyzing the isotopic content of the two elements and dating the sample by calculating the decay of Uranium 234 into Thorium 230. "Dating cave art accurately and precisely, but without destroying it, has so far been hard to accomplish", says Hoffmann. This approach shows that the paintings predate human arrival in the area by 20,000 years, meaning the artists who created them were Neanderthals. "This is certainly just the beginning of a new chapter in the study of ice age rock art", says Gerd-Christian Weniger of the Foundation Neanderthal Museum Mettmann, one of the leaders of the Ardales excavations.

From the murky depths of Spanish caves comes a surprising insight: Neanderthals created art.

"The standard archaeological interpretation of such finds is that they are body ornaments", Hoffmann said.

However, the scientists working on the newly discovered paintings used state-of-the-art uranium-thorium dating to provide more accurate age estimates.

Both behaviors suggest that they thought symbolically and had an artistic sensibility like modern humans. The only way to clearly show that Neanderthals came up with the idea on their own was to date their work to before they met humans - and that's exactly what this study does.

Paola Villa, an archaeologist who studies Neanderthal culture at the University of Colorado Boulder, says that Neanderthals have an undeserved reputation as moronic brutes.

Their precise meaning may forever be unknowable, says Alistair Pike, an archaeologist at the University of Southampton, UK, who co-authored the study, but they were nearly certainly meaningful to our lost kin.

An worldwide team has found the first major evidence that Neanderthals, a "sister" species to Homo sapiens that created the world's oldest known cave paintings, may have had a similar artistic sense to that of human beings. In the Cueva Ardales, where excavations are now being conducted by a German-Spanish team, the presence of Neanderthals has also been proven from analysing occupation layers.

The researchers suggested cave art found in other western European caves could also have been produced by Neanderthals.

A second related study published in Science Advances found that dyed and decorated marine shells from a different Spanish cave also dated back to pre-human times.

He added, "I am aware that, for the time being, fossil evidence for modern humans (in Spain) is dated to less than 45,000 years ago, but this is for the time being". Neanderthals were not an uncultured or behaviourally inferior species to Homo sapiens as they have typically been portrayed in the past.

In fact, it is likely that such an ability was present in the ancestors we share with Neanderthals, pushing it even further back in evolutionary history.

This date predates the oldest-known symbolic artefacts, thought to have been created by modern humans in Africa, by between 20,000 and 40,000 years.

Past claims that Neanderthals created art works - such as the geometric scratches found in the walls of a Gibraltar cave in 2014 - have been undermined by imprecise dating techniques.