Neanderthals have been given a bad rap. Our closest human cousins, the Neanderthals, were long thought of as dumb and brutish. Even their very name was used as an offensive descriptive for people we thought to be in some ways sub-human. Today additional archaeological evidence has shined a new light on our vanished relatives, and it looks like we owe them a big apology.
It is extremely hard to weigh up the cognitive abilities of our extinct hominin relatives, we can’t bring them in for an interview or give them an IQ test. This lack of direct proofs led to years of speculation over whether Neanderthals had anything like similar cognitive abilities to fully modern humans. What we do have is fossils, archaeological evidence of their culture and brain endocasts. An endocast is an internal cast of the cranial vault which allows us to see the surface structure of the brain.
We tend to think of high culture as being indicated through such things as science, writing, music, spiritual ritual and the production of art. For a very long time, it has been the case that the evidence available to anthropologists indicated that Neanderthals lacked some of these signatures, including art. Academics would ask why it was that if Neanderthals were capable of higher thinking they did not produce the stunning artwork seen at many early modern human cave sites?
More recently the story of Neanderthal cave art, or the lack of it, has shifted quite dramatically. New findings from three cave sites; La Pasiega in north-eastern Spain, Maltravieso in western Spain and Ardales in southern Spain, have produced new evidence which is rewriting our understanding.
Archaeological exploration throughout the European continent have convincingly established that the direct ancestors of modern Europeans only reached this region of the world around 45,000 years ago. This arrival date meshes with fossils, tools, early examples of cave art and the genetic evidence for Eurasian population divergence during the early migrations.
There is plentiful evidence to show that Neanderthals were in Europe long before 45,000 years ago, and yet no art seemed to accompany this early inhabitation. Despite definitive evidence of a lengthy presence for Neanderthals across Europe cave art seemed to appear only after modern humans arrived.
The more recent studies at the three sites in Spain identified much older examples of work incorporating animals, dots, geometric patterns, handprints, and engraved iconography, alongside hand stencils (all in red or black).
“Our dating results show that [some of] 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. “With an age in excess of 64,000 years it predates the earliest traces of modern humans in Europe by more than 20,000 years.
The process of logical deduction leads to Neanderthals being identified as the likely creators of these astonishing visual masterpieces. The scientists acknowledge that it remains possible another hominin species was responsible for the work, such as archaic Homo sapiens, but there is no clear evidence for their presence in Spain at this early time.
Prof Chris Stringer, from London’s Natural History Museum, who was not involved in the study, commented on the matter of whether Neanderthals were capable of symbolic or artistic expression the latest finding “seems to remove any doubts”. Prof Stringer suggests of these paintings that, “They further narrow any perceived behavioural gap between the Neanderthals and us.”
Dirk Hoffmann, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology used a novel method to date the artwork. The radioactive element uranium dissolves in water, but thorium doesn’t. When water soaks through soils into a cave any uranium is carried with it and becomes trapped in mineral deposits where it then goes through radioactive decays at a predictable rate which produces thorium. Through the measurement of the relative amounts of uranium and thorium in minerals provide a minimum age for any paintings which are beneath these deposits.
Mineral crusts overlying the images at the three Spanish cave sites produced dates of at least 64,800 years before the present day. This is only the minimum date possible for the art which means it must be considered that some of the images may be significantly older. The project has led to identifying what is currently the earliest directly dated cave art anywhere in Europe, bringing it close in time to some of the oldest examples found anywhere on Earth.
A second and archaeological separate study has also found some astonishing findings at Cueva de los Aviones (Cave of the Birds), a coastal hominin occupation site in south eastern Spain. Among the artefacts examined from the site were perforated seashells, red and yellow compounds for painting and shell containers with mixed pigments. The scientists involved with this research project also utilised Uranium-Thorium dating methods to determine the age of the archaeological materials.
The finding from the detailed dating process revealed that the artists had been present on-site around 115,000 years ago. Previously the earliest well-dated artefacts of this type were in Africa and found to be no older than 92,000 years in age. That Spain should have older examples of this type of artistic behaviour than found anywhere in Africa came as quite a surprise to the researchers involved.
“One wrong move, and you might remove some pigments from the wall that were there for thousands and thousands of years,” says Hoffmann, the lead author of both studies. “There’s this overwhelming feeling you get when you first get in.”
Neanderthals and modern humans seemingly demonstrated equal ability to produce rock art. Additional archaeological discoveries have also begun to level the intellectual field in respect to tool manufacturing, technological prowess, ritual behaviour and potentially even the ability to produce effective vocalisation for communication purposes (speech). The flow of novel discoveries in the area of human origins has reignited the question of whether Neanderthals might not be a sub-species of Homo sapiens rather than a truly distinct hominin.
There is certainly good reason to wonder whether Neanderthals might not be an isolated subgroup of our Homo sapiens that became highly specialised and went through evolutionary adaptation which produced unique morphology that suited their chosen lifestyle. Modern humans successfully interbred with these evolutionary cousins and we still carry significant chunks of their genetic material, traditionally this would have been considered the marker for membership of a single species.