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.

Fracking unlikely in Europe

These days, leading British politicians burdened with power have a tendency to show outwardly that they are, if little else, earnest. When busy with economic and industrial policy they wear tailored day-glo hi-viz suits and shiny new hard hats. During the great 2015 floods of Northern England, their garb was off the peg North Face gear and green wellington boots. And, of course, for social policy a hoodie is de rigueur. Rosy-cheeked Prime Minister David Cameron has been extremely earnest about fracking for shale gas for several years, and in the petroleum industry the appropriate signal of a leading politician’s enthusiasm is to wear a rigger’s blue jumpsuit; ‘We’re going all out for shale’ Cameron has said. Given the explosive success of shale-gas exploitation in North America over the last decade that’s not very surprising, but do not expect to see him looking earnestly at an exploration rig again any time soon.

Cameron’s excitement began when in 2011 the Advanced Resources Institute (ARI) in Washington DC released the results of its consultancy for the US Department of Energy on global shale-gas prospects. The star prospect in Europe was Poland, well endowed with subsurface shales, which according to ARI, had more than 5 trillion cubic metres of technically recoverable reserves, enough to satisfy Polish consumption for more than 300 years. In 2013, ARI suggested 17 trillion m3 beneath Britain, albeit only 0.7 trillion that was amenable to fracking (about a decade’s worth of British gas consumption). But still the hype was maintained. An article in the 3 March 2016 issue of Nature (Inman, M. 2016. Can fracking power Europe. Nature, v. 531, p. 22-24) tempers enthusiasm a great deal more.

The Polish Geological Institute revised the country’s reserves down to a tenth of ARI’s estimate. After an initial frenzy of interest following the ARI report, when exploration licences covered a third of Poland, during 2013 and 2014 major companies relinquished licences for fracking en masse. Their exploratory activities had been disappointing because of the depth of burial (2-5 km compared with 1-2 km in the US) and unfavourably high clay content and strength of the target shales. The less thrilling ARI prospects for Britain did not excite major petroleum players at all, what interest there is being from ‘juniors’ such as Cuadrilla. The British Geological Survey, which has huge archives of geological information, both surface and subsurface, has assessed the three main British shale-gas ‘plays’ and comes up with a reserve figure of between 24 and 68 trillion m3. But that high figure is based on the situation in mid-west North American shale-gas fields, where the geology is a great deal simpler than here. In Britain, orogenies at the end of the Carboniferous and the outermost ripples of that which formed the Alps in late Mesozoic and Palaeogene times created far more deformation than beneath the central plains of North America. Widespread faults, even though few in Britain have large displacements, pose two sets of problems. As the minor earthquakes set off by fracking in the tectonically simple Fylde area of western Lancashire indicate, pumping fluids into faulted rock can release pent-up elastic strain. But such leakage into faults and smaller fractures may also cause the injection pressure to fall, making the fracking process less efficient.
Fracking information sheet from the British Geological Survey

Inman reports that fracking is now moribund throughout Europe, partly because of the disappointing results and also because environmental concerns for densely populated regions have spurred widespread moratoria, including those in three of Britain’s four nations; Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The only current European fracking activity is in England, conducted by a handful of junior companies. A stumbling block in England actually lies with the quality of subsurface data for what has been described at the most close examined geology in the world. Since the early 1980s there has been a succession of onshore licensing rounds for oil and conventional gas, the 14th of which is still active. The early ones were accompanied by a great deal of seismic reflection surveying, mainly using the truck mounted ‘Vibroseis’ method where the ground is mechanically thumped rather than subject to explosive shot firing that is favoured in sparsely populated areas. According to BGS, the guardians of the onshore seismic exploration repository, compared with the onshore seismic data available in North America that for Britain is ‘sparse, and fairly poor’.