scorecardScientists figured out which human ancestor made the first cave paintings - and it challenges one way we thought humans were unique
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Scientists figured out which human ancestor made the first cave paintings - and it challenges one way we thought humans were unique

Scientists figured out which human ancestor made the first cave paintings - and it challenges one way we thought humans were unique
LifeScience3 min read

neanderthal cave painting

P. Saura

The ladder shape composed of red horizontal and vertical lines (centre left) dates to older than 64,000 years and was made by Neanderthals.

  • Long before early modern humans arrived in Europe, Neanderthals were painting in caves, leaving behind animal shapes and hand-prints.
  • They may also have been decorating shells before Homo sapiens did.
  • This indicates that the stereotype of the brutish Neanderthal is wrong - they were cognitively closer to us than many think.

We often think of art and culture as exclusively the domain of humans - specifically our particular species, Homo sapiens.

But the more we learn about other early hominin species, the more it seems that idea may be wrong.

Long before what researchers refer to as "modern" humans ever reached Europe, our Neanderthal cousins were creating cultural objects and painting in caves in Spain, according to several recently published studies. The new research has pinpointed when some of the first European art that we know of was created.

According to the scientists, the earliest cave paintings in Spain (from three different sites) date back more than 64,000 years. These paintings are red and black in color and depict geometric shapes, hand-prints, hand stencils, and even animals like horses, deer, and birds.

The paintings were dated using a technique called uranium-thorium dating, which is far more precise for estimating the dates of such creations than the radiocarbon-dating method that was used in the past.

"This is an incredibly exciting discovery which suggests Neanderthals were much more sophisticated than is popularly believed," archaeologist Chris Standish of the University of Southampton, one of the two lead authors on the paper, said in a news release.

In the other new study, researchers used the same technique to reveal that Neanderthals may have engaged in creative or symbolic behavior long before these cave paintings were created. In the Cueva de los Aviones, in what is now southeast Spain, a collection of shells appears to be decorated with pigment and perforated in ways that might have allowed them to be worn in a decorative fashion.

If these shells were intentionally modified in such a way, it would indicate Neanderthals were engaging in complex symbolic behavior potentially at least as far back as Homo sapiens ever did.

perforated shells neanderthals

J. Zilhão

Perforated shells found in sediments in Cueva de los Aviones and date to between 115,000 and 120,000 years.

Changing what it means to be a "Neanderthal"

Homo sapiens first evolved approximately 200,000 years ago. Some early groups of human ancestors likely first left Africa as far back as 120,000 years ago, according to recent research. But the bigger migration from the birthplace of humanity didn't begin until 60,000 years ago - and it took some time before populations settled in Europe.

Neanderthals were around long before those first modern humans, however. They first appear in the fossil record about 400,000 years ago, then disappear about 40,000 years ago.

Many researchers have assumed those Homo neanderthalis were far more primitive than their later-evolving relatives. But these new discoveries challenge that line of thinking.

Scientists and archaeologists have found that Homo sapiens engaged in creative and symbolic behavior going back at least as far as the Spanish cave paintings do. According to the new studies, decorative artifacts dating back 70,000 and even 92,000 years have been found in Africa.

But there's long been a debate about whether Homo sapiens were the only species capable of thinking this way and engaging in this sort of behavior. The latest studies suggest they were not.

"According to our new data Neanderthals and modern humans shared symbolic thinking and must have been cognitively indistinguishable," Joao Zilhao, team member from the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies in Barcelona, said in a news release.

"On our search for the origins of language and advanced human cognition we must therefore look much farther back in time, more than half a million years ago, to the common ancestor of Neanderthals and modern humans."

Questions about whether Neanderthals were cognitively on the same level as early modern humans will remain controversial. But this at least helps demonstrate that the brutish stereotypes we now associate with the word "Neanderthal" might be incorrect.

If Neanderthals were responsible for what we now think of as the first art ever created in Europe, then modern humans - Homo sapiens - are not so unique after all.