Tue, Feb 27, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Neanderthals, not moderns, were Earth’s first artists

Neanderthals were painting on cave walls in Spain 65,000 years ago — tens of thousands of years before modern humans

By Ian Sample  /  The Guardian

More than 65,000 years ago, a Neanderthal reached out and made strokes in red ocher on the wall of a cave, and in doing so, became the first known artist on Earth, scientists say.

The discovery overturns the widely held belief that modern humans are the only species to have expressed themselves through works of art.

In caves separated by hundreds of kilometers, Neanderthals daubed, drew and spat paint on walls, producing works of art tens of thousands of years before modern humans reached the sites, the researchers say.

The finding, described as a “major breakthrough in the field of human evolution” by an expert who was not involved in the research, makes the case for a radical retelling of the human story, in which the behavior of modern humans differs from the Neanderthals by the narrowest of margins.

Until now, the evidence for Neanderthal art has been tenuous and hotly contested, often because the works were not old enough to rule out modern humans as the real artists.

However, the latest findings, based on new dates of symbols, hand stencils and geometric shapes found on cave walls across Spain, make the most convincing case yet.

“I think we have the smoking gun,” University of Southampton professor of archeological sciences Alistair Pike said. “When we got the first date for the art, we were dumbfounded.”

The Neanderthals were already firmly at home in Europe when modern humans left Africa and made their way to the continent about 40,000 years ago. The remnants of Neanderthals, in the form of skeletons, tools and decorative adornments, reach back more than 120,000 years in the region.

In a study published in Science on Thursday last week, an international team led by researchers in the UK and Germany dated calcite crusts that had grown on top of ancient works of art in three caves in Spain. Because the crusts formed after the paintings were made, the material gives a minimum age for the underlying art.

Measurements from all three caves revealed that paintings on the walls predated the arrival of modern humans by at least 20,000 years.

At La Pasiega cave near Bilbao in the north, a striking ladder-like painting has been dated to more than 64,800 years old. Faint paintings of animals sit between the “rungs,” but these might have been added when Homo sapiens found the caves millennia later.

In the Maltravieso cave in western Spain, a hand shape — thought to have been created by spraying paint from the mouth over a hand pressed to the cave wall — was found to be at least 66,700 years old. At the Ardales cave near Malaga, stalagmites and stalactites that form curtain-like patterns on the walls appear to have been painted red, and have been dated to 65,500 years ago.

What the creators sought to express with their efforts is anyone’s guess.

“We have no idea what any of it means,” said Dirk Hoffmann of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig.

It is not the only question left unanswered.

“It’s fascinating to demonstrate that the Neanderthals were the world’s first artists, and not our own species,” Durham University professor of paleolithic archeology Paul Pettit said. “The most important question still remains, however. What were Neanderthals doing in the depths of dark and dangerous caves if it wasn’t ritual, and what does that imply?”

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