This month a group of researchers from Europe report a neat study that used radiodecay to date ancient paintings in several caves in Iberia . Their data shows the paintings were made more than 68,000 years ago, which is 20,000 years older than the earliest date estimated for cave art so far. More important, it dates to a period when the area was inhabited by Homo neanderthalis, and before Homo sapiens lived there. The paintings were done by Neandethals.
The methods are neat. The dating relies on the ratio of Uranium to Thorium in the carbonate rocks on the cave walls, which, like Carbon dating reflects the natural radioactive decay. This technique was used to estimate the age of layers underneath the painting (the “canvas”) and layers deposited on top of the painting. These dates neatly bracket the minimum and maximum age of the artworks. Very nice.
These firm dates are important because ancient art, especially cave paintings, are difficult to date. Up to now, cave paintings have been difficult to accurately measure. Most cave paintings have been estimated to be relatively recent, and associated with human (Homo sapiens). Many artifacts have been attributed to Neanderthals, but the dating overlapped with human occupation, so it was difficult to positively identify cave paintings as specifically Neanderthal.
This study places the early cave paintings squarely in “Neanderthal” times, which is a first.
This report has led to misleading headlines suggesting that this study showed that “Neanderthals were capable of making art” , implying that everyone thought Neanderthals were “not capable of making art”. This is silly.
It has been clear for a very long time that Neanderthals had a complex culture, with many forms of “art”.  For that matter, Neanderthals are very, very close relatives to humans, and, in fact, many of us carry Neanderthal genes . It is generally recognized that a Neanderthal person probably would be difficult to pick out from a crowd in a city today.
Since all humans (H. sap.) are capable of language, symbolic thought, and “art”, there is no reason to think our close cousins–and, evidently, out breeding partners–H. neand., would not be “capable” of all this too. In fact, I have trouble imagining a theoretical explanation for how they could not be “capable of making art”.
Part of the silliness is pure anthropocentrism. People seem to be deeply committed to being “special”, being the “crown of creation”. In the last couple of centuries, scientific exploration has made very clear that we are related to all life on Earth, sharing genes with everything, including microbes, plants, and all manner of not-very-much-like-us things. Our supposed unique physical and cognitive abilities have been also been shown to be far from unique [2, 7].
There is also a lot of emotional attachment to notions of the ‘transcendence’ of making art. Of course, no one has much idea any more what counts as “art”–but whatever it is, it is special. And many people consider art to be a mysterious expression of sublime human emotion.
This idea is complicated by the fact that most art leaves no long lasting trace (music being the most human art of all ). Some artifacts are treasured as souvenirs of performances or other evanescent ‘art’, and other artifacts may be treasured as ‘art’ objects, even when their creators had completely pragmatic motives.
We can also add the point that Europeans have a cultural tradition that values painting as a pinnacle of cultural achievement. The ancient cave paintings are seen as pushing this imagined cultural heritage back hundreds of thousands of years. However crude, and whatever the motives of the creators, Iberian cave art has been taken as breathtaking symbolic expression, a la European painters of the last few centuries .
In short, the entire notion that cave paintings could only be made by Homo sapiens reflects contemporary cultural biases about art and about “humanity”. These ideas had little basis in any evidence or logic.
In the end, this study is the strongest possible evidence that overturns these stupid, ‘sapiens centric’ (not to mention Eurocentric and whatever the word for ‘painting is the only art that counts’-centric.)
Neanderthals created paintings themselves, with no need for “help’ or ‘influence’ from H. sap.. The paintings were made with unknown but almost certainly symbolic meaning.
The last vestiges of “it must have been humans”, or worse, “humans showed Neanderthals how to do it”, are dissolved. Neanderthals did it. As expected. Get over yourselves, you ‘saps’.
- Gregory Curtis, The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World’s First Artists, New York, Anchor Books, 2006.
- Frans De Waal, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 2016.
- D. L. Hoffmann, C. D. Standish, M. García-Diez, P. B. Pettitt, J. A. Milton, J. Zilhão, J. J. Alcolea-González, P. Cantalejo-Duarte, H. Collado, R. de Balbín, M. Lorblanchet, J. Ramos-Muñoz, G. Ch Weniger, and A. W. G. Pike, U-Th dating of carbonate crusts reveals Neandertal origin of Iberian cave art. Science, 359 (6378):912, 2018. http://science.sciencemag.org/content/359/6378/912.abstract
- Steven Mithen, Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2006.
- Svante Pääbo, Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes, New York, Basic Books, 2014.
- Paul Rincon, Neanderthals were capable of making art, in BBC News – Science & Environment. 2018. http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-43115488
- Thomas Suddendorf, The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals, New York, Basic Books, 2013.