Neanderthals, the world’s first artists

The oldest cave painting is 64,000 years old and belongs to this period, according to a study with Spanish participation.

Paintings in the cave of La Pasiega made by Neanderthals more than 64,000 years ago

Who were the first artists on Earth? Traditionally, scientists have attributed the first symbolic capacities to modern humans who arrived in Europe. But in recent years, new discoveries have shaken that hypothesis: before us, the Neanderthals already decorated their bodies with ocher and beads, and made small signs on bones and stones.

A new study published in the journal Science reveals that the oldest cave art found in Europe predates modern humans by at least 20,000 years and therefore has to be of Neanderthal origin. It is the first clear evidence that our extinct Iberian cousins ​​created cave drawings 64,000 years ago. The paintings belong to three Spanish caves: Ardales (Málaga), La Pasiega (Cantabria) and Maltravieso (Cáceres).

The oldest cave paintings.

“The figures were made with red pigment, hematite or ocher. The dye was reduced to a powder by crushing it and mixed with water. The application on Maltravieso’s hands was done by blowing the pigment using a rudimentary airbrush made up of two bone or vegetable cannulas. In the La Pasiega cave, the finger or a brush was most likely used. And in the case of Ardales, everything points to the fact that it was pigment applied with the fingers”, the researcher Marcos García Diez, co-author of the work at the Isabel I University of Burgos, tells SINC.

The paintings are simple from a creative point of view. In Ardales they are concentrations of color with elongated or pseudo-ellipsoid shapes on calcite formations. In La Pasiega there are two more or less parallel long vertical lines that are joined by other horizontal lines forming a staircase. For this reason, in the scientific literature they are known as scaleriforms.

The cave of the Planes.

The cave of the Planes.
J. Zilhao

Lastly, in the Maltravieso cave there are, above all, hands. “Despite the fact that we see them as a figurative theme, from an artistic point of view they are very simple, because they are silhouettes obtained by the projection of the dye after placing the hand on the wall”, explains García Diez.

For the analysis, U-Th dating was used, a very precise technique based on the radioactive decay of uranium isotopes in thorium, which determines the age of calcium carbonate formations up to 500,000 years, much later than the method of radiocarbon.

What interpretation do scientists give to the meaning of the paintings? “They are symbols that belong to a graphic language for which we do not know the keys to interpret them,” Joao Zilhão, co-author of the study at the University of Barcelona, ​​explains to Sinc. But what we do know is that they are implanted in areas close to the cave or in non-hidden places, we believe that to be easily seen (the color is striking red) and with unrestricted access. Although they are only hypotheses on which we will have to move forward ”.

We also do not know with what criteria they chose the place where they painted. Everything seems to indicate that natural spaces, such as caves, could have a symbology for hunter-gatherer groups. “It’s like giving a symbolic dimension to natural architecture, just as we do today with many religious or other spaces. What is clear, and examples of this are La Paseiega and Ardales, is that it lasted and was transmitted, since other figures from later times have been found inside the caves”, adds Zilhão.

These results confirm the idea that Neanderthal groups had the capacity and tools to develop a lasting graphic language such as rock art. “There were defenders, like the fellow Zilhão, who supported the symbolic complexity of the Neanderthals, centered on body decoration, painting themselves and even adorning themselves with feathers or pendants. Today we know something else: that they painted to transmit ideas on supports through lasting forms in time and in a specific space”, says García Diez.

The oldest cave painting.

The oldest cave painting.
Breuil et al.

For the authors, the concepts behind these motifs are the best example of the identity and cohesion of human groups, since language, in this graphic and artistic case, is social.

Today there are no more rock art dates as old as those presented in this work. In 2012, and in another publication of Science,some of the authors of this same study presented dates of around 40,000 years for discs and hands from the El Castillo cave (Cantabria). On that occasion it was suggested that art was very old and that it was located on the border between what was considered typical of Homo sapiens and of Homo neanderthalensis. This opened the debate.

“As a result of this study, we must reflect on whether the motifs found in caves scattered throughout Europe – and why not, in other regions – may be older. We are convinced that in the coming years similar studies will appear on the Peninsula and in the rest of the world”, concludes García Diez.

Dyed and decorated seashells

In another study published in the journal Science Advances, a team of scientists has studied the remains of decorated marine shells found in another Spanish cave, Los Aviones in Cartagena. They also date from times before the appearance of modern humans in Europe.

Shells associated with the emergence of symbolic materialism, a critical moment in the evolution of our species, are described. To date, the earliest of these artifacts had been found in Africa and were 92,000 years old, thus attributed to early modern humans.

To know the age of these marine remains stained with red and yellow pigments, sedimentary and isotopic data were used. The researchers found that two of the four samples analyzed are from 115,000 years ago, much further back in time than the known presence of early modern humans in the region.

The authors say that these finds, both the rock art and the decorated artifacts, leave “no doubt that Neanderthals shared symbolic thinking with early modern humans.” The ability for symbolism may have been inherited from the common ancestor, and not acquired by modern humans when they entered Europe.

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