Cave painting study reveals Neanderthals were artists

A study of Spanish cave art published last Thursday (22 February 2018) suggests Neanderthals may have been the first artists in Europe.

High-tech scientific analysis of paintings inside three cave sites at La Pasiega, Maltravieso and Ardales has revealed they were created at least 20,000 years before modern humans arrived in Europe from Africa. Scientists were able to date the art to at least 64,800 years ago by scraping off a few milligrams of calcium carbonate deposit and measuring the radioactive decay of uranium isotopes incorporated in the mineral crusts forming over the paintings.

Comprised of mainly red and black paintings, the cave artwork depicts animals, linear signs, hand stencils and geometric shapes. According to the latest study, published in Science journal, the paintings offer proof that Neanderthals understood symbolic representation, possessed the cognitive skills to mix pigments and consciously chose appropriate places to display their work.

Professor Alistair Pike from at the University of Southampton, a co-leader of the study, said it demonstrates Neanderthals were much more sophisticated than popular culture would have us believe. “What we’ve got here is a smoking gun that really overturns the notion that Neanderthals were knuckle-dragging cavemen”, Professor Pike explained.

Neanderthals were a ‘sister’ species to Homo sapiens. Upon the arrival of modern humans in Europe, Neanderthals began to die out and eventually became extinct 40,000 years ago. Their demise is variously attributed to competition from modern humans, our direct ancestors, and even their inability to adapt to climate change.

The latest study illustrates that in order to discover the origins of human cognition scientists must delve even further back in human history, to the common ancestor of Neanderthals and modern humans over 500,000 years ago.

 

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