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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.
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.
Editorial from the Guardian Newspaper 26 February 2018.