Prehistoric cave paintings actually drawn by Neanderthals, not humans

22 Feb 2018

The scalariform (ladder shape) composed of red horizontal and vertical lines is older than 64,000 years and was made by Neanderthals. Image: CD Standish/ AWG Pike/DL Hoffmann

Neanderthals had just as much artistic sense as humans, according to a new study of ancient cave paintings.

We tend to think of Neanderthals as the less-intelligent, ancient rivals to humans, but the latest scientific research suggests that, in fact, our ancestors shared many of the creative talents and ideas that we do.

Research by the University of Southampton and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology has led to a breakthrough after finding that paintings in three caves in Spain were created 64,000 years ago – 20,000 years before modern humans arrived in Europe.

Created geometric shapes

This means that the cave art from the ice age – which includes drawings of animals and geometric signs – was made by Neanderthals, who are considered a ‘sister’ species to modern humans and at one point were the only inhabitants of Europe.

Detailing its findings in Science, the international team also concluded that this shows Neanderthals thought symbolically, contrary to previous thinking.

Key to this new understanding was the use of a technique called uranium-thorium dating, which involved analysing tiny carbonate deposits that have built up on top of the cave paintings.

These contain traces of radioactive elements uranium and thorium, which indicate when the deposits formed and therefore give a minimum age for whatever lies beneath.

This method helps researchers to overcome the limitations of radiocarbon dating, which can give false age estimates.

60 carbonate samples were obtained as part of the study, with all three containing red (ochre) or black paintings of groups of animals, dots and geometric signs, as well as hand stencils, handprints and engravings.

La Pasiega

One of the drawings found in La Pasiega, one of the ancient caves. The red scalariform (ladder) symbol has a minimum age of 64,000 years but it is unclear if the animals and other symbols were painted later. Image: Breuil et al

‘An incredibly exciting discovery’

According to the researchers, creating the art must have involved such sophisticated behaviour as the choosing of a location, planning of light source and mixing of pigments.

“This is an incredibly exciting discovery which suggests Neanderthals were much more sophisticated than is popularly believed,” said the study’s lead author, Dr Chris Standish.

“Our results show that the paintings we dated are, by far, the oldest-known cave art in the world, and were created at least 20,000 years before modern humans arrived in Europe from Africa; therefore, they must have been painted by Neanderthals.”

Adding greater credence to the theory, the study’s co-author, Paul Pettitt, said it was definitely not a one-off.

“Neanderthals created meaningful symbols in meaningful places. The art is not a one-off accident,” he said.

“We have examples in three caves 700km apart and evidence that it was a long-lived tradition. It is quite possible that similar cave art in other caves in western Europe is of Neanderthal origin as well.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic