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Neanderthals' Terrible Art Might Explain Why They Died Out

It's a new theory on the evolution of the human brain.
Photo: Shutterstock

Unlike the nimble-fingered Homo sapiens who came later, Neanderthals just could not seem to draw people and animals that resembled people and animals.

New research now posits that this failing — essentially one of hand-eye coordination (or lack thereof) — can be linked to their increasingly redundant hunting skills. Which, unsurprisingly, probably led to their disappearance (be it through interbreeding or extinction) 40,000 years ago.


The connection between drawing skills and hunting technique is explained by Dr. Richard Coss, the author of the research and a professor emeritus at the University of California. Coss writes in the journal Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture that Neanderthals hunted close-range by thrusting spears, and that they could do this because large animals weren't yet aware they were prey. But that likely made Neanderthals less spatially aware compared to Homo sapiens, who advanced to killing from a distance as animals grew more wary. This, Coss says, is reflected in Homo sapiens' superior drawings, which indicate superior spatial awareness.

Coss suggests homo sapiens' comparatively sophisticated drawings may have even been used in group scenarios to strategise the killing of prey.

Better art, dated 7000 BP, found in the Libyan Desert. Source: Wikimedia Commons

This difference in visual-motor coordination might also explain why Neanderthals' craniums weren't "globular shaped," but the more agile Homo sapiens' craniums were. As the university says in a statement:

"Homo sapiens developed rounder skulls and grew bigger parietal cortexes — the region of the brain that integrates visual imagery and motor coordination — because of an evolutionary arms race with increasingly wary prey."

Coss, who is also an artist and whose previous research focused on art and human evolution, studied the strokes of charcoal drawings and engravings of animals made by human artists 28,000 to 32,000 years ago in the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in southern France.

"The visual imagery employed in drawing regulates arm movements in a manner similar to how hunters visualize the arc their spears must make to hit their animal targets," he explains.