20120205-Vulva images in La Ferrassie.jpg
Vulva images in La Ferrassie cave
At the time that Neanderthals disappeared, modern humans were creating elaborate cave paintings and sophisticated bone ornaments. It had long been long thought that the reason equivalent Neanderthal works had not been found was because Neanderthals were not as advanced as modern humans. In recent years examples of cave art in Europe have been found that appear to pre-date modern humans and thus must have been created by Neanderthals who occupied Europe before modern humans arrived.

Other examples of Neanderthal art that have been found include perforated and grooved animal teeth, and ivory rings. A carved and polished ivory tooth from a baby mammoth, and elk and wolf teeth with holes that may have been worn as pendants were found in a French cave near Arcy-sur-Cure. It seems likely that Neanderthals may have made art such a carved wood or created rituals dance or produced some other kind of art that has are not been preserved.

Chip Walter wrote in National Geographic: “Very little evidence remains that they engaged in symbolic behavior. But the traditional view of Neanderthals as brutish beings incapable of such behavior has been slowly chipped away. Having never reached the population densities that may have triggered the appearance of symbolism in Africa, Neanderthals may never have had much need for it, or revealed it in ways we don’t yet understand. [Source: Chip Walter, National Geographic, January 2015 ]

“For decades the debate over the Neanderthals’ ability to rise to the standards of their successors centered on a site in France called Grotte du Renne, where artifacts normally associated with Upper Paleolithic modern humans—bone tools, distinctive stone blades, and pierced and grooved animal teeth probably worn as pendants—were found along with Neanderthal remains. Some researchers reasoned that although the Neanderthals may have been responsible for this tool tradition (known as the Châtelperronian), they were still a species capable only of emulating the fancy craftsmanship of their new modern human neighbors, not inventing it on their own.

Divje Babe, a Neanderthal Cave in Slovenia

“The more we learn about Neanderthals, including their ability to interbreed with our direct ancestors, the more the “copycat” explanation for the Châtelperronian sounds like special pleading. The record for Neanderthal symbolic behavior elsewhere may be faint, but it is discernible. Some scholars argue that Neanderthal skeletons found in France and Iraq were deliberately buried. Cut marks recently found on bird-wing bones hint that Neanderthals used feathers for ornaments up to 50,000 years ago, and a crisscross pattern engraved at least 39,000 years ago in the rock of a Neanderthal cave in Gibraltar suggests they could think abstractly. And a single red disk painted on a wall in El Castillo Cave in Spain was recently dated to about 41,000 years ago, tantalizingly close to a time when only Neanderthals are known to have been in western Europe. Perhaps they, not us, were the first cave artists.”

The presence of lumps of pigment found at some Neanderthal sites has led some scientists to speculate they practiced decorative body art. Scientists found dozens of pieces of sharpened manganese dioxide at a French Neanderthal site called Pech de l’aAze, which they speculate could have been used to as black crayons to color animal skins or produce body art. In 2002 a Neanderthal artist's palette of ochre was discovered in a Romanian cave. A Neanderthal site in Spain revealed pigment-stained mollusk shells that might have been worn as jewelry. Erik Trinkaus, a professor of physical anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, said: "We now have a series of examples of different kinds of pigment use in archaeological contexts that can only be associated with Neanderthals." [Source: Nikhil Swaminathan, Archaeology magazine, Volume 65 Number 5, September/October 2012]

Websites and Resources on Neanderthals: Wikipedia: Neanderthals Wikipedia ; Neanderthals Study Guide ; Neandertals on Trial, from PBS; The Neanderthal Museum ; The Neanderthal Flute, by Bob Fink Websites and Resources on Prehistoric Art: Chauvet Cave Paintings ; Cave of Lascaux; Trust for African Rock Art (TARA); Bradshaw Foundation; Australian and Asian Palaeoanthropology, by Peter Brown

Websites and Resources on Hominins and Human Origins: Smithsonian Human Origins Program ; Institute of Human Origins ; Becoming Human University of Arizona site ; Talk Origins Index ; Last updated 2006. Hall of Human Origins American Museum of Natural History ; Wikipedia article on Human Evolution Wikipedia ; Human Evolution Images; Hominin Species ; Paleoanthropology Links ; Britannica Human Evolution ; Human Evolution ; National Geographic Map of Human Migrations ; Humin Origins Washington State University ; University of California Museum of Anthropology; BBC The evolution of man"; "Bones, Stones and Genes: The Origin of Modern Humans" (Video lecture series). Howard Hughes Medical Institute.; Human Evolution Timeline ; Walking with Cavemen (BBC) ; PBS Evolution: Humans; PBS: Human Evolution Library; Human Evolution: you try it, from PBS; John Hawks' Anthropology Weblog ; New Scientist: Human Evolution; Fossil Sites and Organizations: The Paleoanthropology Society; Institute of Human Origins (Don Johanson's organization); The Leakey Foundation; The Stone Age Institute; The Bradshaw Foundation ; Turkana Basin Institute; Koobi Fora Research Project; Maropeng Cradle of Humankind, South Africa ; Blombus Cave Project; Journals: Journal of Human Evolution; American Journal of Physical Anthropology; Evolutionary Anthropology; Comptes Rendus Palevol ; PaleoAnthropology

Neanderthals – Not Modern Humans – Were the First Artists?

Flute found in Divje Babe cave

Neanderthals made cave painting in Spain 65,000 years ago — thousands of years before modern humans were even in Europe — scientists say. The finding debunks the widely-held belief that modern humans are the only species capable of producing art. Ian Sample wrote in The Guardian: “In caves separated by hundreds of miles, Neanderthals daubed, drew and spat paint on walls producing artworks, the researchers say, tens of thousands of years before modern humans reached the sites. 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 behaviour of modern humans differs from the Neanderthals by the narrowest of margins. [Source: Ian Sample, The Guardian, February 22, 2018 |=| ]

“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. But 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,” said Alistair Pike, professor of archaeological sciences at the University of Southampton. “When we got the first date for the art, we were dumbfounded.” |=|

“In a study published in Science an international team led by researchers in the UK and Germany dated calcite crusts that had grown on top of ancient art works 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.

“Historically, works of art and symbolic thinking have been held up as proof of the cognitive superiority of modern humans – examples of the exceptional skills that define our species. “To my mind this closes the debate on Neanderthals,” said João Zilhão, a researcher on the team at the University of Barcelona. “They are part of our family, they are ancestors, they were not cognitively distinct, or less endowed in terms of smarts. They are just a variant of humankind that as such exists no more.” |=|

Neanderthal Art Works

Images in La Pasiega Cave

The four caves in Spain with Neanderthal art are: 1) La Pasiega: with a red ladder shape, at least 64,800 years old; 2) Ardales: with painted rock ‘curtains’, at least 65,500 years old; 3) Maltravieso: with hand stencils, at least 66,700 years old; 4) Aviones: with painted seashells dated to 115,000 years ago. [Source: Ian Sample, The Guardian, February 22, 2018 |=| ]

Ian Sample wrote in The Guardian: “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 may have been added when Homo sapiens found the caves millennia later.

“In 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 at 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,” said Paul Pettit, professor of palaeolithic archaeology at Durham University. “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?” |=|

“In a second paper, published in Science Advances, Hoffman and others show that dyed and decorated seashells found in the Aviones sea cave in southeast Spain were made by Neanderthals 115,000 years ago, pointing to a long artistic tradition. |=|

Reactions to the Neanderthal Art Claims

La Pasiega Cave

Jonathan Jones wrote in The Guardian: “It seems very possible that Neanderthals actually taught Homo sapiens to paint in caves. However, there’s no evidence – yet – that they painted realistically. Could it just be that our relativism about what art is blinds us to the really amazing thing – the skill and perception of the paintings made by Homo sapiens? ...But here’s the thing. That Neanderthal hand is the first evidence ever found of another species showing cultural self-consciousness. It’s not so very far from a hand print to a self-portrait to a diary to a novel. This discovery dethrones the modern human mind. [Source: Jonathan Jones, The Guardian February 23, 2018]

Ian Sample wrote in The Guardian: “But some scientists are cautious about the claims. “It is possible that Neanderthals made rock art of some kind, but I don’t believe that this has been adequately demonstrated here,” said Adam Brumm, an archaeologist at Griffith University in Brisbane. He believes the scientists may have dated calcite crusts that were not overlying paint, meaning they provide dates only for the rock canvas, rather than the artwork itself. He also wonders if the curtain-like rock formations at Ardales cave might be naturally pigmented, rather than painted. [Source: Ian Sample, The Guardian, February 22, 2018 |=| ]

“Clive Finlayson, director of the Gibraltar Museum, has discovered a rock engraving that was made by Neanderthals, and found evidence they may have adorned themselves with the talons of golden eagles and other birds of prey. He welcomed the work, but said it was impossible to rule out other originators of the Spanish art, such as the mysterious Denisovans or some as yet unknown species. “We have to keep an open mind. Who else was around?” he said. |=|

“Others are less sceptical, though. Wil Roebroeks, professor of palaeolithic archaeology at Leiden University in the Netherlands said the work “constitutes a major breakthrough in the field of human evolution studies”.“The concept of Neanderthal cave art, at least 65,000 years ago, is certainly exciting and surprising, possibly even difficult to accept for some,” Roebroeks added. “I would love to listen in to the conversations this will create in some quarters where Neanderthals are still seen as behaviourally inferior to their modern human contemporaries. Neanderthals made ‘cave art’ – deal with it,” he said. |=|

“The team’s next job is to understand whether Neanderthal art was widespread, by dating and studying cave markings in France and other countries. “That might help us get a little closer to what it means,” Pike said. If Neanderthals were the world’s first artists, it raises the question of what they might have achieved had they had not died out. “If you’d given Neanderthals another 40,000 years,” Pike said, “they probably would have got to the moon.”

Neanderthals Using Ocher 200,000 Years Ago?

Maltravieso Cave

Zach Zorich wrote in Archaeology magazine: “In 1981, when Wil Roebroeks of Leiden University was beginning his archaeological career, he ran across some red stains in the grayish sediments on the floodplain of the Maas River where his team was excavating. The site, called Maastricht-Belvèdère, in The Netherlands, was occupied by Neanderthals at least 200,000 years ago. Roebroeks collected and stored samples of the red stains, and 30 years later he received funding to analyze them. It became apparent that he and his team had discovered the earliest evidence of hominins using the mineral iron oxide, also known as ocher. [Source: Zach Zorich, Archaeology, Volume 65 Number 3, May/June 2012 |==|]

“Until now, the use of ocher—as a red pigment in rock paintings, an ingredient in glue, and for tanning hides, among other things—was thought to be a hallmark of modern human behavior. While the manner in which the mineral was used at Maastricht-Belvèdère is something of a mystery, the find has had an impact on the question of whether ocher use represents modern behavior. "This whole debate is now to some degree a non-debate," Roebroeks says, "because Neanderthals were already doing this 200,000 years ago."” |==|

40,800-Year-Old Spanish Cave Art “Panel of Hands”: Oldest Cave Art?

The 'Panel of Hands' in El Castillo Cave is a series of red disks and hand stencils made by blowing or spitting paint onto the wall. A date from a disk shows the painting to be older than 40,800 years making it among the oldest known cave art in Europe. Some bison overlay the hands and are therefore painted later. [Source: Seth Borenstein, Associated Press, June 14, 2012]

Seth Borenstein of Associated Press wrote: “Testing the coating of paintings in 11 Spanish caves, researchers found that one is at least 40,800 years old, which is at least 15,000 years older than previously thought. That makes them older than the more famous French cave paintings by thousands of years. Scientists dated the Spanish cave paintings by measuring the decay of uranium atoms, instead of traditional carbon-dating, according to a report released Thursday by the journal Science. The paintings were first discovered in the 1870s.

“The oldest of the paintings is a red sphere from a cave called El Castillo. About 25 outlined handprints in another cave are at least 37,300 years old. Slightly younger paintings include horses. Cave paintings are "one of the most exquisite examples of human symbolic behavior," said study co-author Joao Zilhao, an anthropologist at the University of Barcelona. "And that, that's what makes us human." There is older sculpture and other portable art. Before the latest test, the oldest known cave paintings were those France's Chauvet cave, considered between 32,000 and 37,000 years old.”

A novel dating technique was used to date the Spanish cave art. Jason Daley wrote in Discover: “Measuring the age of the cave paintings found across Europe is confounding because most images are made from inorganic pigments that leave few clues. Archaeologist Alistair Pike, now at the University of Southampton, described a clever way to get answers: Analyze the breakdown of radioactive uranium-234 embedded in the natural mineral crust that forms on top of the artworks. Pike and his team applied the technique to drawings from 11 caves in the Cantabria and Asturias regions of northern Spain. They pegged the age of one illustration—a red disk in El Castillo cave—at 40,800 years old, making it the oldest known piece of European art by more than 5,000 years. [Source: Jason Daley, Discover, January 2, 2013]

Nikhil Swaminathan wrote in Archaeology magazine: “Rather than directly examining the art, scientists instead analyzed calcium carbonate (calcite) crusts that covered the paintings. They used a technique called uranium-thorium dating. The calcite covering, which is formed by the same process as stalagmites and stalactites, contains trace amounts of uranium, which decays over time into thorium. Using mass spectrometry, scientists can measure thorium in a calcite sample as small as a grain of rice to arrive at an approximate date when the crust formed. That date is the minimum possible age of the art behind it.” [Source: Nikhil Swaminathan, Archaeology magazine, Volume 65 Number 5, September/October 2012]

Maltravieso handprints

40,800-Year-Old Spanish Cave Art: Made by Neanderthals?

The painted works described above may predate the arrival of modern humans in the area the artworks were made, therefore it would not be presumptuous to presume they might have been made by Neanderthals. The earliest remains of modern humans in Europe is a 41,500-year-old mandible found in the Romanian cave Pestera cu Oase. The earliest fossils of Neanderthals in Europe are dated at 430,000 years ago. If modern humans made the art works, it would safe to assume they arrived with some already-developed artistic skills, although there evidence of cave art in Africa older than 40,000 years old.

Seth Borenstein of Associated Press wrote: “What makes the dating of the Spanish cave paintings important is that it's around the time when modern humans first came into Europe from Africa. Study authors say they could have been from modern humans decorating their new digs or they could have been the working of the long-time former tenant of Europe: the Neanderthal. Scientists said Neanderthals were in Europe from about 250,000 years ago until about 35,000 years ago. Modern humans arrived in Europe about 41,000 to 45,000 years ago — with some claims they moved in even earlier — and replaced Neanderthals. "There is a strong chance that these results imply Neanderthal authorship," Zilhao said. "But I will not say we have proven it because we haven't." [Source: Seth Borenstein, Associated Press, June 14, 2012]

Zilhao said Neanderthals recently have gotten "bad press" over their abilities. They decorated their tools and bodies. So, he said, they could have painted caves. But there's a debate in the scientific community about Neanderthals. Other anthropologists say Zilhao is in a minority of researchers who believe in more complex abilities of Neanderthals.

“Eric Delson, a paleoanthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and John Shea at Long Island's Stony Brook University said the dating work in the Science paper is compelling and important, but they didn't quite buy the theory that Neanderthals could have been the artists. "There is no clear evidence of paintings associated with Neanderthal tools or fossils, so any such evidence would be surprising," Delson said. He said around 41,000 years ago Neanderthals were already moving south in Europe, away from modern humans and these caves. Shea said it is more likely that modern humans were making such paintings in Africa even earlier, but the works didn't survive because of the different geology on the continent. "The people who came in to Europe were very much like us. They used art, they used symbols," Shea said. "”

In order to prove Neanderthals were cave artists, Delson believes archaeologists need to find bones or tools in a cave layer that corresponds directly to the art on a wall. Zilhão disagrees. "You don't have to have both the art and the occupation in the same site," he says, noting that there are no associated human remains at caves famous for their Paleolithic art, such as Chauvet. "These are just places where people went to make this stuff." [Source: Nikhil Swaminathan, Archaeology magazine, Volume 65 Number 5, September/October 2012]

La Pasiega art

39,000-Year-Old Neanderthal Engraving Found in Gorham’s Cave

Archaeologists working in Gorham’s Cave in Gibraltar announced in 2014 they found an engraving that they suggested was a work of art or an image of symbolic meaning. Jon Mooallemjan wrote in the New York Times magazine: “The excavation had worked through” a “narrowed rear chamber of the cave years earlier and discovered, at the end of the 2012 season, an engraving on the floor: a crosshatched pattern of 13 grooves in the bedrock. A tide of specialists flowed into Gorham’s. They determined that the engraving was made at least 39,000 years ago and ruled out its having been created inadvertently — left over after skinning an animal, say. In controlled experiments, it took between 188 and 317 strokes with a flint tool to create the entire figure. “What we’ve always said,” Finlayson explained, “is it’s intentional and it’s not functional. You can call that art, if you like.” ||*|| reported: “An unnatural-looking series of lines carved into the bedrock of the cave was discovered by a team of archaeologists led by Prof Clive Finlayson of the Gibraltar Museum in July 2012. According to a new analysis carried out by the team and reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the abstract engraving covers an area of 15 by 20 centimeters and consists of eight deep lines forming an incomplete criss-cross pattern, obliquely intersected by two groups of short, thin lines. [Source:, Sep 24, 2014]

“Finlayson and his colleagues ruled out the possibility that the engraving was from cutting meat or animal skins. “The engraved pattern differs strikingly from deep alteration cracks and other networks of natural fissures present on the exposed surfaces of the fine-grained lime-dolostone of the cave,” they said. “Experimental replication shows that the most of the lines were made by repeatedly and carefully passing a pointed lithic tool into the grooves, excluding the possibility of an unintentional or utilitarian origin.” A layer of sediment that once covered the engraving contained Mousterian artifacts. This means that it must be at least 39,000 years old. “This engraving represents a deliberate design conceived to be seen by its Neanderthal maker and, considering its size and location, by others in the cave as well,” the scientists concluded.

Mooallemjan wrote “The finding was published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2014. The news media called the engraving “the hashtag.” One scientist described the elaborate crosshatch as watershed evidence of Neanderthals’ capacity for “complex symbolic thought” and “abstract expression.” Finlayson turned the hashtag into a logo for the Neanderthal-centric rebranding of his museum. There was a hashtag decal on the van he picked me up in every morning.” ||*||

Viewing the Hashtag: the 39,000-Year-Old Neanderthal Engraving

hashtag engraving

Jon Mooallemjan wrote in the New York Times magazine: “At the rear of Gorham’s Cave, past the hearth the team was excavating, there was a tall metal staircase. It led up to a long catwalk, which led to a locked steel gate. I waited there one morning while Finlayson fumbled around in his pocket. Then he turned his key. [Source: Jon Mooallemjan, New York Times magazine, January 11, 2017 ||*||]

“, Finlayson lifted a tarp and showed it to me. It did not make a tremendous impact at first — it was lines in rock. But Finlayson went on, pointing to a spot near the entrance to this isolated anteroom, a few feet across from the engraving, where the team had excavated another hearth. Neanderthals built fires in that exact spot, on and off, for 8,000 years, he said — until their disappearance from Gibraltar. But few animal bones were recovered here; it wasn’t a place they cooked. And the location of the fire was also puzzling: Neanderthals usually situated fires at the fronts of caves, to control smoke. And yet, Finlayson explained, “if you look up, this has a natural chimney.” We flung our heads back: A chute coursed through the high, craggy ceiling above us. ||*||

“I looked again at the hashtag. It wasn’t on the cave floor, exactly, as it was usually described, but on a broad ledge, a foot or two off the ground. It made for a perfect bench, and it was suddenly easy to imagine a Neanderthal sitting on it, in ideal proximity to the fire. For all I knew, the hashtag marked his or her favorite seat.” ||*||

Neanderthal Jewelry

Neanderthals in Europe appear to have worn pigment-stained seashells as necklaces 50,000 years ago according to a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Jennifer Viegas wrote in Discovery News: “The colorful mollusk shells, which date to 50,000 years ago, were recently found in Murcia Province, Spain. Since the shells were painted 10,000 years before modern humans are believed to have settled in Europe, this leaves little doubt that Neanderthals made the still eye-catching pieces. [Source: Jennifer Viegas, Discovery News, January 8, 2010 ^|^]

jewelry from Kaprina, Croatia

“Humans in Africa at the time created comparable objects, so lead author Joao Zilhao and his team believe both groups of hominids were on equal intellectual footing. Neanderthal "intelligence was no different from ours," Zilhao, a professor of paleolithic archaeology at the University of Bristol, told Discovery News. "Their societies had the same kind of band level organization documented among contemporary hunter-gatherers and inferred from prehistoric ones," he added. ^|^

“Although most of the stained shells were perforated, the researchers think the holes occurred naturally, and that Neanderthals preferentially gathered the necklace-ready objects on nearby beaches. A paint cup and ground up coloring agents were also found near the stained shells. One particularly well-preserved shell had a natural red coloration on one side while its reverse was painted with an orange pigment made out of the minerals goethite and hematite.

“Such "artwork" indicates Neanderthals possessed symbolic thinking, a skill most often attributed to our species. Zilhao explains that "age, sex, family, clan affiliation, status" and more can all be communicated by things like jewelry and tattoos, which Neanderthals are also believed to have sported. Was it just a coincidence that humans in Africa were also making similar body ornaments during the Middle Paleolithic? Zilhao and his team think not, and intriguingly propose that cultural exchange and interbreeding occurred between the two groups. "Neanderthals (and) early humans in Europe, Africa and Asia never ceased to be connected by networks of genetic and cultural exchange," Zilhao said. "Innovations, therefore, would have traveled across such networks." ^|^

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Nature, Scientific American. Live Science, Discover magazine, Discovery News, Ancient Foods ; Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, BBC, The Guardian, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson (Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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