Neanderthals – the oldest masters of cave art | News | DW | 23.02.2018
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Neanderthals – the oldest masters of cave art

Neanderthals created decorative objects and cave paintings thousands of years before our Homo sapiens ancestors, according to landmark finds. The two human species apparently had the same cognitive abilities.

Using symbols and creating art is usually attributed to our own species of modern humans, the Homo sapiens. However, scientists now have reason to believe that the extinct Neanderthals produced art in the same way as our ancestors, and apparently did so much earlier.

Modern humans and Neanderthals apparently "shared symbolic thinking" and "must have been cognitively indistinguishable”, researcher João Zilhão from the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies in Barcelona. The new studies, published in the Science and Science Advances journals, are the work of an international team of researchers led by Dirk Hoffmann of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig in eastern Germany.

Ancient hand stencil Maltravieso Cave in Spain (Reuters/University of Southampton)

Color-enchanced Neanderthal hand stencil from Maltravieso Cave in Spain

Read more: Neanderthals ate woolly rhinos and used aspirin

Neanderthals created 'meaningful symbols'

One of the studies tried to determine the age of three cave painting sites in Spain by using a new method of Uranium-Thorium (U-Th) dating. The results showed that paintings were drawn over 20,000 years before Homo sapiens arrived in Europe.

"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," said researcher Alistair Pike from the University of Southampton. "The cave art must thus have been created by Neanderthals."

The ancient artists mixed pigments for coloring, planned for a light source, and chose a proper location for their works. The examined pictures show groups of animals, dots and geometric signs, hand stencils, hand prints and engravings.

Neanderthals (picture alliance/dpa/F.Gambarini)

Scientists believe Neanderthals looked like this

"Neanderthals created meaningful symbols in meaningful places”, says cave art specialist Paul Pettitt from University of Durham in England, as cited in the article published by Germany's Max Planck institute.

Seashells on the Spanish coast

Modern humans apparently started painting in caves around 40,000 years ago. Judging by early artifacts found in Africa, our species was painting shells, possibly for decoration, some 70,000 years ago. This too, however, was apparently done earlier.

In the second study, researchers also used the U-Th dating to examine perforated seashells, red and yellow colorants and shell containers with complex mixes of pigments from a sea cave called Cueva de los Aviones, also in Spain.

"We dated the deposit underlying the flowstone to an age of about 115,000 years”, says Dirk Hoffmann. Similar to the first study, the age of the artifacts indicates Neanderthal origin.

Searching for roots of language and thought

Neanderthals and Homo sapiens shared about 99.7 percent of their DNA. There is evidence of interbreeding and traces of Neanderthal genes are apparently still found in present-day humans. The new discoveries indicate that the two species had equivalent cognitive abilities, casting a new light on human evolution.

Read more: Humans and Neanderthals 'shared Europe'

"In 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," says João Zilhão from the University of Barcelona.

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