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New Research Shows That Neanderthals Were Artists

We always assumed humans were the only species to create art. It now seems we were wrong.
A visitor looks at El Neandertal Emplumado, a scientific recreation of the face of a Neanderthal who lived some 50,000 years ago by Italian scientist Fabio Fogliazza, at the Museum of Human Evolution in Burgos, Spain, on June 10th, 2014.

A visitor looks at El Neandertal Emplumado, a scientific recreation of the face of a Neanderthal who lived some 50,000 years ago by Italian scientist Fabio Fogliazza, at the Museum of Human Evolution in Burgos, Spain, on June 10th, 2014. 

Culture snobs use derogatory terms for people who have no appreciation for fine art. "Philistines!" we'll huff. Or, worse, "Neanderthals!"

It now appears that the latter invective is unfair—to Neanderthals.

New, sophisticated dating techniques reveal that cave paintings on the Iberian Peninsula were created at least 65,000 years ago—many millennia before our Homo sapiens ancestors made their way to the continent. That means the Stone Age Cézannes who painted them were members of our often-derided rival species.

"Neanderthals created meaningful symbols in meaningful places," co-author Paul Pettitt of Durham University said in announcing the findings, which are published in the journal Science.

That ability has long been seen as "one of the main pillars of what makes us human," in the words of the study's lead author, Dirk Hoffmann of the Max Planck Institute. So this news may be a bit deflating to our collective ego.

"I think this finding forces us to reconsider some of our preconceptions about art and civilization," says Steven Tepper, dean of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University. "We tend to see art as a form of cultivated human thought and expression and an appreciation of beauty and form. But art is an attempt to make meaning, beyond simple transactions and exchanges, and meaning is required whenever we confront change—in our personal lives, in our relations to others, and to our environment. Neanderthals confronted change and searched for meaning, just as Homo sapiens did."

The research team examined ancient art on the walls of three caves in Spain—one of which, in Andalusia, feature more than 1,000 "paintings and engravings in a vast array of forms, including hand stencils and prints; numerous dots, discs, lines, and other geometric shapes; and figurative representations of animals, including horses, deer, and birds."

The researchers removed tiny bits of carbonate deposits that built up on top of the paintings over the centuries. They then determined the age of the paintings using a newly available, highly precise technique, which measures trace amounts of the radioactive elements uranium and thorium.

HOW OUR UNDERSTANDING OF NEANDERTHALS HAS DRAMATICALLY—AND RAPIDLY—SHIFTED: The discovery of an ancient man with a recent Neanderthal ancestor illustrates how quickly the science of Stone Age humans has changed.

"The paintings we dated are, by far, the oldest known cave art in the world," said co-author Chris Standish, an archaeologist at the University of Southampton. "[They] were created at least 20,000 years before modern humans arrived in Europe from Africa. Therefore, they must have been painted by Neanderthals."

And they can't be dismissed as random doodles.

"Hand stencils (which, unlike positive hand prints, cannot be created by accident) require a light source, and previous selection and preparation of the coloring material—evidence of premeditated creation," the researchers write.

"Because a number of hand stencils seem to have been deliberately placed in relation to natural features in caves, rather than randomly created on accessible surfaces, it is difficult to see them as anything but meaningful symbols placed in meaningful places."

Psychologist Dean Keith Simonton of the University of California–Davis, who has studied aesthetics and human creativity, isn't especially surprised by this news.

"We're increasingly realizing that the Neanderthals always got a bum rap ever since their discovery," he says. "At the beginning, in fact, they were treated like some kind of missing link between humans and the anthropoid apes. Just look at those old and now repudiated reconstructions of how they looked. Yet we are increasingly learning more and more about how close to our species they really were—close enough that the two species or subspecies may have fallen in love and raised families together."

Such things can happen when you mingle at art exhibits.

A related study, to be published Friday in the journal Science Advances, takes us even further back in time. It reports that signs of artistic activity found in a sea cave in southeast Spain—including "shell containers that feature residues of complex pigmentatious mixtures"—appear to be 115,000 to 120,000 years old.

That research team, also led by Dirk Hoffmann, concludes: "It is possible that the roots of symbolic material culture may be found among the common ancestor of Neanderthals and modern humans, more than half a million years ago."

In other words, the impulse to create art appears to predate us as a species.

"So art-making is not an elevation of human cognition, although some forms of symbolic manipulation require more complex thinking," says ASU's Tepper, who was not involved in this research. "Art is experience—to quote philosopher John Dewey—or the struggle to make sense of our world. We will never know the other forms of art that might predate visual expressions—body movement, gesture, sound. The question is when did sentient beings begin to make meaning in whatever form—and that is clearly much earlier than we imagined."