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

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.

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