Spanish cave art was produced by Neanderthals

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.

The mammoth diet of Neanderthals

Stable isotope evidence from three Belgian sites

Attempts to gain insight into Neanderthal diet have been many and various over the years. Methods have included consideration of dental microwear, tooth calculus, lithic use-wear and residues, and stable carbon and nitrogen isotope data. These studies have shown that the Neanderthal diet included the consumption of large herbivores, but the extent to which smaller mammals, birds, riverine and seafood was eaten remains uncertain.

To address these issues, researchers conducted carbon and nitrogen stable isotope analyses of collagen extracted from Neanderthal remains from the Belgian sites of Goyet and Spy. Results were compared with those from extensive faunal remains from Goyet, Spy and a third Belgian site, Scladina. These included mammoth, rhino, horse, reindeer, hyena, wolf, cave bear and cave lions. The proportion of the isotopes carbon-13 and nitrogen-15 reflect an animal’s place in the food chain: the highest levels are found in carnivores.

The results show that Neanderthal isotope levels and hence diet differed from that of any carnivore, indicating that they occupied a distinct ecological niche. The overall data suggested that while predators typically preferred smaller animals such as reindeer and horse, the Neanderthal focus was on large herbivores. Mammoth was the most important source of meat, accounting for around 30 to 40 percent of the Neanderthal diet. Reindeer and rhino accounted for lesser proportions, and plant food for about 20 percent.

Wißing, C. et al., Isotopic evidence for dietary ecology of late Neandertals in North-Western Europe. Quaternary International, (2015).


Neanderthals ate their greens

Analysis of 60,000 – 45,000 year old coprolites provides insight into Neanderthal diet

Neanderthal dietary reconstructions have, to date, been based on archaeological evidence, stable isotope data and studies of dental calculus. These suggest that they were predominantly meat eaters, although plant foods made a contribution to their diet. Hitherto, there has been no direct evidence for an omnivorous diet.

A new study, published in the open access journal PLoS One has presented direct evidence of Neanderthal diet using faecal biomarkers, which are a valuable analytical tool for identifying diet. Researchers applied gas chromatography and mass spectroscopy techniques to coprolites (fossil faeces) from the Neanderthal site of El Salt at Alicante, Spain. The coprolites were recovered from sediments gathered from a number of levels at the site, which was repeatedly occupied by Neanderthals between 60,000 and 45,000 years ago.

The team focused on chemical processes associated with the action of bacteria in the gut. They found a high proportion of coprostanol, which the gut bacteria produce from cholesterol and which is associated with the consumption of meat. However, they also recorded significant quantities of 5β-stigmastanol, which is associated with plant consumption.

Further tests were necessary to confirm that the coprolites were of human origin. The conversion of cholesterol into coprostanol is not unique to humans, but related molecules were also identified in proportions that ruled out other omnivores.

1.  Ainara Sistiaga, A., Mallol, C., Galván, B. & Everett Summons, R., The Neanderthal Meal: A New Perspective Using Faecal Biomarkers. PLoS One 9 (6), e101045 (2014).