What many will see as conclusive evidence that Neanderthals were not the dimwits of popular imagination has been published in the journal Science.
Researchers investigated three Spanish sites with cave paintings and an archaeological record of human occupation going back to Neanderthal times: La Pasiega in Cantabria, Maltravieso in Extremadura, and Ardales in Andalucía. Although both Neanderthals and modern humans had occupied the caves over the millennia, it has long been accepted that the artwork was solely produced by the latter.
La Pasiega is part of the Monte Castillo cave art complex, a World Heritage Site that also includes the caves of El Castillo, Las Chimeneas, and Las Monedas. These caves have been occupied by humans throughout the past 100,000 years. The La Pasiega artwork comprises mainly red and black paintings, including groups of animals, linear and club-shaped signs, dots, and possible anthropomorphic figures. Maltravieso has been sporadically used by humans over the past 180,000 years; it contains red hand stencils, geometric designs, and painted and engraved figures. Ardales was occupied during the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic. There are over one thousand paintings and engravings, including hand stencils and prints; numerous dots, discs, lines, and other geometric shapes; and figurative representations of animals, including horses, deer, and birds.
Uranium series dating was used to obtain dates for calcite crusts overlaying cave paintings, the idea being that dating the crusts would give the minimum age of the paintings. A red ladder-like abstract painting at La Pasiega was found to be 64,800 years old. Animals and other symbols accompanied the ladder, but these have not been dated and could have been later additions. A red hand stencil at Maltravieso was 66,700 years old; and there were repeated episodes of painting at Ardales going back to 65,500 years ago. In all three cases, the artwork precedes the earliest evidence for modern humans in Europe by almost twenty thousand years.
The authors of the report claim that the long-running debate over Neanderthal symbolic behaviour is at an end. However, questions remain. The ‘ladder’ is not the earliest example of abstract art made by archaic humans: Homo erectus was making abstract patterns 500,000 years ago. It is broadly contemporary with abstract patterns engraved on ochre by modern humans at Blombos Cave in South Africa; but the earliest-known figurative art is only around 35,000 years old. Some have argued that the ability to produce abstract patterns does not necessarily imply behavioural modernity. It should also be noted that Neanderthals are not directly associated with either the Bruniquel Cave complex or any of the Spanish cave paintings. The link is solely based on the assumption that modern humans were not in Europe until 46,000 years ago. The debate could only be conclusively ended by dating an example of figurative cave or portable art to the Neanderthal era and associating it unambiguously with Neanderthal remains.
We can be certain that Neanderthals were not the dimwits of popular imagination, but just how closely their behavioural patterns resembled the modern condition is still far from clear.
Hoffmann, D. et al., 2018. U-Th dating of carbonate crusts reveals Neandertal origin of Iberian cave art. Science 359, pp. 912-915.