Sophisticated Neanderthal art now established

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The first detailed description and analysis of the amazing cave paintings of Western Europe that have been attributed to anatomically modern humans (AMH) were made in the early 20th century by the Jesuit priest Abbé Henri Breuil. As well as that those of Lascaux and Altamira, which have been dated, many works in Spanish caves have not. Art ascribed to AMH includes figurative work depicting a wide range of Late Pleistocene animals, abstract and perhaps symbolic designs, and ‘signatures’ of individual people in the form of direct prints or stencils of hands. The earliest known graphic work made by modern humans is a 100 ka-old baton of ochre with a zig-zag set of sharp incisions found with ochre-filled shells possibly for body painting at Blombos Cave in South Africa.

Evidence for pre-AMH work in Europe is sparse and widely  judged to be ambiguous; for instance 50 ka-old ochre-stained and pierced shells associated with Neanderthal remains in Spain.  Hints at even earlier origins for art lie in the geometrically etched bivalve shells excavated by Eugene Dubois at the site in Java where he discovered Homo erectus crania in 1891. They have recently been dated at around half a million years old.  Occasionally, radiometric dating of drawings has revealed quite meagre red dots that are slightly older than the widely accepted date of first entry of AMH into Europe (~40-45 ka) and may have been made by Neanderthals. Of course, there are many European cave paintings associated with dates earlier than the extinction of Neanderthals (around 30 ka) that may have been made by them, but which are generally ascribed to AMH by assuming that only our species has the wit to make them.  Even the sophisticated Châtelperronian stone tools and rough ornaments associated with undeniable Neanderthal remains are considered by many paleoanthropologists to show skills copied from AMH.

This AMH-centric view of art depends on two outlooks: simple prejudice that any beings markedly different in appearance from us were intellectually inferior – generally condemned as racist if applied to different groups of living humans; lack of incontrovertible and unambiguous evidence to the contrary. Both are set to be rigorously challenged by the growing use of sophisticated radiometric U-Th dating of the thin films of chemically precipitated calcite (flowstone or speleothem) that often coat the walls of caves and are at least as old as the art that they cover. A German-Spanish-British team has applied the technique to artwork and painted stalactites on the walls of three caves in Spain known to have been occupied by hominins over the last 100 ka (Hoffmann, D.L and 13 others 2018. U-Th dating of carbonate crusts reveals Neandertal origin of Iberian cave art. Science, v. 359, p. 912-915; doi: 10.1126/science.aap7778. See also: Appenzeller, T. 2018. Europe’s first artists were Neandertals. Science, v. 359, p.852-853; doi: 10.1126/science.359.6378.852). One cave that was analysed is that at La Pasiega in Cantabria whose art was sketched by Abbé Breuil. The team’s results are dramatic: all the dated samples pre-date 40 Ka, the oldest at 79.66±14.90 ka being from La Pasiega. Precisely dated art includes hand stencils, painted stalactites, geometric patterns and line drawings of animals. Many of the caves’ artworks remain to be dated, including some well-executed animals and strange, possibly symbolic designs.

Symbolic Neanderthal art in La Pasiega cave, Spain – left: recent photograph; right: sketch produced Abbé Breuil in 1913. The red, ladder-like symbol has a minimum age of 64 ka but it is unclear if the animals and other symbols were painted later. (credit: Hoffmann et al. 2018, Supplementary Data Figure S4)

The implications of this work are far-reaching. Handprints and stencils are common throughout the archives of European cave art and seem generally to be the oldest at each site. The dating method is yet to applied to the bulk of cave art, much of which is encased in speleothem, so it is quite possible that ‘dual authorship’ may be discovered in some caves. It now seems clear that Neanderthals invented permanent art independently of AMH, and since art is a form of communication that has implications for the ability to speak as well as to think ‘outside-the-box’. The 177 ka corral-like enclosures made of stalactites and associated hearths deep within Bruniquel Cave seem more likely to have ritual significance, far from the light of day, for the Neanderthals that made them. The finds throw doubt on the implausibility of Neanderthal invention of so-called ‘transitional’ technologies, such as the Châtelperronian. Finally, fully modern humans in Africa and Neanderthals in Europe were doing much the same things over roughly the same time period; genetically and physically they parted company about 450 to 400 ka ago; both were capable of artistic symbolism and fulfilled that potential. That implies that their common ancestor may have passed on the proclivity, as might their predecessor H. erectus who created the etched mollusc shells of Trinil half a million years ago.

More on Neanderthals, Denisovans and AMH genetic relatedness

Editorial from the Guardian Newspaper 26 February 2018.

6 thoughts on “Sophisticated Neanderthal art now established

    1. I liked your comments on the Brodgar carved ball, Bernie, which I saw last time I was on Orkney. It is analogous to the Neanderthal symbols in that working out what its maker was trying to convey is a hard call – unless it is simply a neat way to make sure it could be tied securely with a piece of string. Part of a bolas or a net weight? The complex symbol in my piece’s figure is truly weird. From Breuil’s sketch it looks like a propeller-driven sled, similar to the ones Gino Watkins used in 1930-1 on the Greenland ice cap. But it’s nice to know that whoever drew it was trying to say something!
      Steve Drury

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  1. Maybe both groups neanderthals and homo erectus gained their artistry from previous civilisations that were cut down by a catastraphy unknown to us ? Evidence of the past becoming dust and being buried by the passing of time ! Nats

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    1. Thanks for your conjecture, Wslaw1954. I am sure that more will be discovered about early tool-using and artistic hominins. Fossil and genetic evidence suggests that Neanderthals and the Denisovans descended from a common ancestor as did what we call Homo sapiens. The most likely candidate is Homo erectus who spanned both Africa and Eurasia and survived for maybe as long as 1.8 million years. The quest for creative artistic endeavors of the past is stymied to a large extent by only that associated with solid objects and surfaces being preserved. Body art – painting and tattooing – can only be guessed at by finding lumps of pigment that show signs of being ground up, or sometimes by the preservation of shells containing such pigments. Otherwise it disappears once an individual washes it off or dies and decomposes. Incidentally shells found in the same 500 thousand year old Javan sediments from which Eugene Dubois unearthed Homo erectus show clear evidence of rudimentary symbolic art. (https://wileyearthpages.wordpress.com/2014/12/08/art-from-half-a-million-years-ago/).

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    1. Thanks for the culture, Bernie! I haven’t been to Orkney for many years, and never went over to Rousay, much to my regret. The Swandro site looks astonishing.

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