The World’s Oldest Known Cave Paintings Were by Neanderthals, Not Humans

Apparently our extinct early relatives were a lot like us.

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23 February 2018, 2:51am

Neanderthal skull compared to a human. Image via Shutterstock

A series of cave paintings in Spain have been dated for the first time, indicating the oldest is from at least 66,000 years ago. This is huge news, because it means the paintings weren’t created by ancient humans as previously assumed, but Neanderthals.

Neanderthals are usually (and incorrectly) seen as a kind of inferior human prototype. But they were in fact a seperate species, known as Homo neanderthalensis, which vanished from the fossil record some 40,000 years ago. We know Neanderthals made tools, but the common perception was that only Homo sapiens made art. But we now know this wasn’t the case.

Two studies, published in Science on Thursday, dated cave paintings found in La Pasiega, Maltravieso, and Ardales. These paintings include geometric shapes, crude renderings of animals, hand prints, and hand stencils. And according to archaeologists, it’s the stencils that particularly allude to behaviours and sensibilities that we humans might recognise today.

"A red line, a red dot or even a positive handprint could potentially be made 'accidentally,' " explained Dirk Hoffmann, lead author of the studies and archaeologist with the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in an email to CNN. "A hand stencil cannot be explained like that. You have to hold your hand against the wall and the deliberately spray pigment over this. This is why we emphasise the hand stencil."

Alistair Pike, co-author of the studies and professor of archaeological sciences at the University of Southampton, also claims it wasn’t just the stencilling that was significant, but its positioning.

“Some of them were painted in pitch black areas deep in the caves—requiring the preparation of a light source as well as the pigment,” he explains in an article on the Conversation. “The locations appear deliberately selected, the ceilings of low overhangs or impressive stalagmite formations. These must have been meaningful symbols in meaningful places.”

So why have these paintings never been properly dated? The issue was technology. Traditionally, archaeologists have used radiocarbon dating to determine age, but this relies on samples containing some kind of organic matter. Bones for example, or seeds. But cave paintings are usually produced with mud or clay, which contain only inorganic minerals.

It’s for this reason that the latest study used a method called uranium-thorium dating. This analyses the natural decay of uranium in minerals that build up over cave paintings, providing surprisingly specific results. Rather than providing answers within a millenium-sized ballpark, for example, uranium-thorium dating can pin materials to specific centuries.

For instance the cave art in La Pasiega, northern Spain, was dated as older than 64,800 years. At another site, Maltravieso in western central Spain, the art, including a hand stencil, was found to be older than 66,700 years.

Now, one of the main mysteries in all this is what happened to the Neanderthals. We know they died out, although it’s thought they'd first lived alongside and bred with humans for several thousand years. Their extinction is thought to have happened some 40,000 years ago, with one theory maintaining that humans wiped out Neanderthals in an ancient example of genocide.

If that is the case, this latest bridge to the past may foster some sympathy for their demise. As Alistair Pike explains, modern humans may have “replaced” Neanderthals, but it is becoming increasingly clear that Neanderthals had similar cognitive and behavioural abilities—and were, in fact, equally “human”.

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