Brutish? You have to hand it to the Neanderthals after all
Cave paintings dated as 15 milliennia older than originally thought, making them Europe's earliest known paintings
Friday 15 June 2012
Neanderthal Man, normally typecast as brutish, unsophisticated and primitive, may well have had a distinctly artistic streak, according to new archaeological research.
A series of Stone Age cave paintings in northern Spain, long-thought to be less than 25,000 years old, have just had their dates pushed back more than 15 millennia making them Europe’s oldest known definitively-dated paintings.
The new date for the art works means that, on balance of probabilities, they were potentially painted by Neanderthals rather than members of our own species of humanity, Homo sapiens.
The dating test on the cave paintings shows they were painted at some stage prior to 41,000 years ago – and potentially up to several thousand years earlier. The reason for the imprecision is that scientists got their date from a layer of calcium carbonate (stalagmite material) which had formed immediately over the surface of the painting at some stage after the art work had been painted.
If the art works – images of hands and red discs – were painted during the 500 or so years prior to the formation of the calcium carbonate layer, then they could be the work of either Neanderthal or Homo sapiens (our species), because the first Homo sapiens humans arrived in the area 41,500 years ago.
But if the paintings were created before that date, they would therefore have had to have been the work of Neanderthal Man.
The discovery is particularly important because of its implication for understanding Neanderthals and/or the complex interaction between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens.
Significantly, cave art was not a Homo sapiens tradition prior to their arrival in Europe. There are no equivalent really early art works in Homo sapiens’ original homeland, Africa.
This may suggest that either early European cave art emerged as a result of some sort of social behaviour developed by Homo sapiens in Europe (perhaps due to competition with Neanderthals) – or, alternatively, and much more controversially, that Neanderthals ‘invented’ cave painting and somehow passed the tradition on to Homo sapiens.
The idea that the artistic member of the human evolutionary family was originally Neanderthal Man rather than us, and that the Neanderthals ‘taught’ our species a love of art would certainly turn popular perceptions of Neanderthal/Homo sapiens interaction on its head.
But there is other evidence suggesting that Neanderthals were keen on artistic self-expression. Although the Spanish ‘painted hands’ and red discs are the first potentially Neanderthal paintings ever identified and accurately dated, objects decorated with mineral pigments (similar to those used for the paintings) have been found on a Neanderthal site 430 miles south of the newly-dated cave art. Elsewhere in Europe there is possible Neanderthal use of pigments in central France – and a very early use by Neanderthals of red ochre pigment in the Netherlands.
The ‘painted hands’ and red discs were made by artists, using their mouths as spray cans. Ground ochre was first mixed with liquid – presumably water. Then the Stone Age artist filled his or her mouth with the resultant red mixture and blew it out onto the wall or roof of the cave, usually using his or her left hand as a stencil. In the cave where the paintings have been dated, around 25 such ‘negative’ stencil images were created in which the shape of the artists’ left hand are seen against a red ochre background.
The joint Spanish/Portuguese/British project to date the art was led by Dr. Alistair Pike of the University of Bristol and funded by the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council. The findings are published in the current issue of Science. The paintings are located in El Castillo cave near Santander in northern Spain.
The dating of the natural layer of calcium carbonate covering the paintings has been carried out by analysing traces of the elements uranium and thorium. Uranium decays radio-actively to form thorium at a set speed. By measuring the ratio of uranium to thorium isotopes in the calcium carbonate, scientists have been able to work out its age and therefore the minimum age of the painting it covers.
The technique is accurate to within 1% - and is effective in dating suitable material as old as half a million years.
Threat of 'catastrophic cascade of collisions' must be averted, warn scientists
Oxford is the least affordable city in the UK, where houses cost 11 times local salaries
Wellcome Image Awards: The most striking images from the world of science, including breast cancer cells under chemical attack and a photographer’s own kidney stone
Space debris orbiting Earth to be destroyed with giant lasers fired from Australia
Oscar Pistorius murder trial: Athlete repeatedly sick as court hears 'graphic details' of Reeva Steenkamp's post-mortem
How climate change helped Genghis Khan: Scientists believe a sudden period of warmer weather allowed the Mongols to invade with such success
Britain's top vet sparks controversy with call for ban on slashing animals' throats in 'ritual' slaughters for halal and kosher meat products
Poor 'live like animals' says Boris's privately educated sister after going on 'poverty safari'
Exclusive: Impact of immigrants on British workers ‘negligible’
Vince Cable: Teachers 'know absolutely nothing' about the world of work
Ukraine crisis: Russia pledges to 'retaliate against sanctions' as Ukrainian president says Crimea vote will not be recognised
The quiet diplomat: Catherine Ashton - recognised and admired in all the world’s troubled countries, yet ridiculed at home
- 1 Australian man Rod Sommerville reacts to bite from deadly snake by reaching for cold beer
- 2 Pakistan vs Paul Smith: Sandal-wearers bemused by famed British designer's attempts to sell traditional Peshawari chappal-style shoes for the distinctly untraditional sum of £300
- 3 North Korea elections: Kim Jong-un wins 100% of the vote
- 4 Grace Dent: Who cares if she spells it Barraco Barner? Gemma Worrall is more employable than some bookish arts graduate
- 5 Sharknado 2: Former WWE wrestler Kurt Angle to fight second wave of flying sharks
£12000 per annum: Inspiring Interns: Our client is a leading digital agency bu...
£40000 - £45000 per annum: Charter Selection: Global leader in its respective ...
£130 - £161 per day: Randstad Education Nottingham: Do you have a qualificatio...
£6720 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Nottingham: The school is much la...