Prehistoric cave paintings actually drawn by Neanderthals, not humans

Neanderthal cave paintings

Standish: We have discovered that some cave art in Spain was painted by Neanderthals. He suspects that primitive members of both the modern human and Neanderthal lineages could have co-existed in western Asia. At this point, many of them have already concluded that our ancient relatives had gotten woefully short shrift in the past, he said. "It is one of the main pillars of what makes us human", he said. "The emergence of symbolic material culture represents a fundamental threshold in the evolution of humankind".

Symbolic material culture, a collection of cultural and intellectual achievements handed down from generation to generation, has so far been attributed to our own species, Homo sapiens.

"Artefacts whose functional value lies not so much in their practical but rather in their symbolic use are proxies for fundamental aspects of human cognition as we know it".

These motifs all therefore predate the arrival of modern humans in Spain and must have been created by Neanderthals.

The caves were already well known for prehistoric animal paintings, hand stencils, and symbolic art - patterns of lines, clubs, and dots - all done in red and black pigments.

To determine the age of the paintings, the researchers used a technique known as uranium-thorium dating that measures the age of calcitic crusts that form on the walls of caves. There also are engravings, hand prints and hand stencils.

The dating shows they came from a time when Neanderthals lived in western Europe. Previous studies had estimated an age of 45,000 to 50,000 years old, too young to rule out a link to H. sapiens.

Scientists used a precise dating system based on the radioactive decay of uranium isotopes into thorium to assess the age of the paintings.

The team dated 53 tiny samples scraped off 25 deposits of calcium carbonate sitting over several symbolic paintings. Radiocarbon technique, which is now much more common, isn't able to date back far enough.

Research by the University of Southampton and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology has led to a breakthrough after finding that paintings in three caves in Spain were created 64,000 years ago - 20,000 years before modern humans arrived in Europe.

Now exactly what the DNA evidence of Neanderthals and Denisovans means for Adam and Eve is still not completely clear.

"Our dating results show that the cave art at these three sites in Spain is much older than previously thought", says team member Alistair Pike from the University of Southampton.

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Cave paintings and artifacts like painted seashells have always been regarded as the work of early modern humans, who were thought to have more advanced cognitive abilities than Neanderthals. "The cave art must thus have been created by Neanderthals".

Hoffman and colleagues note that the earliest South African artefacts so far discovered date to about 79,000 years ago.

In a new study, researchers dated cave art in Spain with a technique called uranium-thorium dating.

Until now, it was believed that all cave paintings had been produced by modern humans, not least because available methods made it impossible to precisely date them any older than that.

"These results suggest that cave painting, also, fails to distinguish Neanderthals and modern humans", said Van Arsdale, who was not involved in the study. A shell bead found at Grotte des Pigeons, Morocco, is estimated to be 82,000 years old, and perforated shells found at Qafzeh Cave in Israel are thought to be 92,000 years old. Image credits: J. Zilhão.

The world's oldest known cave art was crafted by Neanderthals more than 20,000 years before modern humans arrived in Europe, showing that our extinct cousins were capable of symbolic thinking just like us, worldwide researchers said Thursday.

The deposit layer containing the shells dated to 115,000 years ago, which is even older than other shells recovered in Africa that were dated to modern humans.

It's also significant that this is not a one-off accident - paintings were found in three caves 700 km apart, indicating a long-standing tradition passed on from generation to generation. Found deep in Spanish caves, the rock art was once thought to be the work of humans, but the new dates mean that Neanderthals must have figured out fingerpainting, too.

"This is certainly just the beginning of a new chapter in the study of ice age rock art", says Gerd-Christian Weniger of the Foundation Neanderthal Museum Mettmann, one of the leaders of the Ardales excavations.

"All of what we know today tells us that it is not because Neanderthals were dummies that they disappeared", she said. If this is the case, we might have to look even further - much further - down in history to find where these abilities first appeared.

"The issue of just how human-like Neanderthals behaved is a hotly debated issue".

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