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.


A mutually-agreeable settlement has been has been reached between WAITROSE and myself.

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Modern humans were in China 100,000 years ago

Assignment of fossil teeth from Fuyan Cave to Homo sapiens is ‘unequivocal’

Ever since genetic evidence emerged to support the ‘recent Out of Africa’ model of modern human origins, the orthodox view is that until around 60,000 years ago modern humans were confined to Africa and a short range extension into Southwest Asia. The latter is thought to have been brought to an end as colder, more arid climatic conditions set in around 90,000 years ago. The model has been challenged by archaeological evidence suggesting that modern humans were established on the Arabian Peninsula 125,000 years ago and had reached India 77,000 years ago.

What has up until now been lacking is unequivocal fossil evidence significantly earlier than around 45,000 years old. Controversial evidence had previously been reported from two sites in southern China. An age of up to 139,000 years old has been claimed for the Liujiang Skull, discovered in 1958, but the exact geological position of the find was not documented and the skull could actually be as little as 30,000 years old. A lower jawbone and two molar teeth from Zhirendong (‘Homo sapiens cave’) in Guizhou Province have been securely dated to 106,000 years old, but it is not certain that these remains belonged to a modern human.

However, the discovery has now been reported of 47 teeth at the newly-excavated site of Fuyan Cave in Daoxian, Hunan Province. Uranium series dating of associated stalagmite fragments gave a minimum age of 80,000 years old for the teeth and faunal dating gave a maximum age of 120,000 years old. The teeth were compared with those of Late Pleistocene humans from Europe, Asia and Africa and were found to fall consistently within the Homo sapiens size range. They are generally smaller than other Late Pleistocene samples from Asia and Africa, and are closer to European Late Pleistocene samples and the teeth of present-day people. They resemble the latter far more closely than they do the teeth of Neanderthals or Homo erectus.

The announcement adds a radical new dimension to the history of modern human dispersals in Eurasia.

Liu, W. et al., The earliest unequivocally modern humans in southern China. Nature 526, 696-699 (2015).

Congenital defect is possible further evidence of inbreeding by Neanderthals at El Sidrón

High incidence of congenital clefts of the arch of the atlas observed among remains from Spanish site

The Atlas (C1) vertebra is the first cervical vertebra of the spine, immediately below the skull. It takes its name from the Greek Titan Atlas, who is popularly (but incorrectly) supposed to have held the world on his shoulders. Congenital defects of the anterior or posterior arches are rare in modern populations, occurring at frequencies of 0.087 to 0.1 percent and 0.73 to 3.84 percent respectively. The condition does not normally lead to clinical symptoms.

El Sidrón is a cave site in Asturias, northern Spain that has yielded extensive Neanderthal remains and stone tools since these were first discovered there in 1994. Over 2,400 human fossils have been recovered, representing at least thirteen individuals including seven adults, three adolescents, two juveniles and one infant. The remains are 49,000 years old. Ancient DNA has previously been obtained from the remains, indicating a small patrilocal (mature males remain within their family birth group, but females come from outside) group with low genetic diversity. Dental hypoplasias indicate that around half of the group members had experienced episodes of growth arrest due to malnutrition.

Researchers now report that two out of just three well-preserved atlases from the site present respectively a defect of the posterior arch and the anterior arch. Such a high incidence of a rare condition could be interpreted as further evidence of low genetic diversity of the group, and as a possible indicator of inbreeding. The picture that emerges from El Sidrón is of a small, barely-viable Neanderthal group struggling for survival in extremely harsh conditions.

Ríos, L. et al., Possible Further Evidence of Low Genetic Diversity in the El Sidrón (Asturias, Spain) Neandertal Group: Congenital Clefts of the Atlas. PLoS One 10 (9), e0136550. (2015).

Movius Line explained?

500,000-year-old shell cutting tool could explain Acheulean hand-axe puzzle

The teardrop shaped Acheulean hand-axe is without doubt the signature artefact of the Lower Palaeolithic, remaining in use for nearly one and a half million years. The tools first came into use about 1.75 million years ago and persisted until around 250,000 years ago. While chiefly associated with Homo erectus, they remained in use into the time of the larger-brained Homo heidelbergensis.

What has long been a puzzle is that while the hand-axes are ubiquitous in Africa, Europe and Southwest Asia, they are very rare further east. The boundary between the two regions is known as the Movius Line, after the American archaeologist Hallam Movius who first noted the discontinuity in 1948. The Movius Line has largely stood the test of time: the occasional Acheulean-like artefacts that have been found in China and South Korea are probably due to an eastwards migration of later hominins about 250,000 years ago (Cameron & Groves, 2004). By this time, hand-axes had been abandoned in the West (Klein, 2005).

The simplest explanation is that the ancestors of Homo erectus living east of the Movius Line had already left Africa by the time the hand-axes were invented (Swisher, et al., 1994). Another possibility is that not every hominin group in Africa adopted Acheulean technology, and that the original migrants were among those lacking it (Lepre, et al., 2011). Both possibilities suppose that firstly, the hand-axes were only invented once (or were not re-invented by groups that had left Africa); and that secondly, after the initial colonisation of Southeast Asia and China, the migrants there had no significant contact with the Acheulean-using peoples living elsewhere. Another possibilities is that the population sizes at the extremities of the migration were too low to keep the skills necessary for hand-axe production alive from one generation to the next (Lycett & von Cramon-Taubadel, 2008). None of these explanations are very compelling, because it is now known that prepared-core techniques were independently invented in Africa and Eurasia (Adler, et al., 2014), and it therefore seems unlikely that the simpler Acheulean technology arose only once.

A more likely explanation is that migrants passed through a region lacking suitable raw materials to make the hand-axes and were forced to look to alternatives for tool-making. One suggestion is they switched to bamboo and either forgot how to make hand-axes or were happy to stick with bamboo even when suitable stone was available (Klein, 2005). It is also possible that they switched to bamboo because it is readily available and an excellent tool-making material in its own right (Cameron & Groves, 2004; Roberts, 2009; Lewin & Foley, 2004).

It has long been claimed that the theory cannot be proved because bamboo implements from such a long time ago are extremely unlikely to have survived – but there are other alternatives to stone that can survive for hundreds of thousands of years. The recently-discovered shell cutting tool from Trinil, Java, is around 500,000 years old, and it was found in a region where suitable stone is scarce (Joordens, et al., 2014). Although it is far more recent than the first eastwards migration of Homo erectus, it demonstrates that the species was capable of utilising alternative raw materials for tool-making where necessary. It therefore seems likely that the Movius Line represents a shift to the use of organic materials for tool-making when stone suitable for hand-axe manufacture was unavailable.


1. Cameron, D. & Groves, C., Bones, Stones and Molecules: “Out of Africa” and Human Origins (Elsevier Academic Press, London, 2004).
2. Klein, R., in The Human Past, edited by Scarre, C. (Thames & Hudson, London, 2005), pp. 84-123.
3. Swisher, C. et al., Age of the earliest known hominids in Java, Indonesia. Science 263, 1118-1121 (1994).
4. Lepre, C. et al., An earlier origin for the Acheulian. Nature 477, 82-85 (2011).
5. Lycett, S. & von Cramon-Taubadel, N., Acheulean variability and hominin dispersals: a model-bound approach. Journal of Archaeological Science 35, 553-562 (2008).
6. Adler, D. et al., Early Levallois technology and the Lower to Middle Paleolithic transition in the Southern Caucasus. Science 345 (6204), 1609-1612 (2014).
7. Roberts, A., The Incredible Human Journey (Bloomsbury, London, 2009).
8. Lewin, R. & Foley, R., Principles of Human Evolution, 2nd ed. (Blackwell Science Ltd, Oxford, 2004).
9. Joordens, J. et al., Homo erectus at Trinil on Java used shells for tool production and engraving. Nature (2014).

Neanderthals may have used projectile spears

Bone abnormality suggests repetitive movements similar to those documented for professional throwing athletes

Three long bones from a Neanderthal left arm have been found at Tourville-la-Rivière, Normandy. The bones are somewhere between 183,000 and 236,000 years old and paleo-ecological indicators suggest an date towards the end of the MIS 7 interglacial (245,000 to 190,000 years ago).

An abnormal crest has been found on the humerus, which is thought to represent a deltoid muscle enthesis. The abnormality could have resulted from trauma connected to repetitive movements similar to those seen for professional throwing athletes.

It has long been assumed that Neanderthals used only thrusting rather than projectile spears, but the Tourville-la-Rivière findings provide evidence,albeit inderect, that this might not have been the case. Such a suggestion is consistent with the recent discovery of 280,000-year-old projectile points in Ethiopia.Though these were not made by Neanderthals, they nevertheless indicate that archaic humans could master projectile technology.

The findings are published in the open-access journal PLoS One.


1. Faivre, J. et al., Middle Pleistocene Human Remains from Tourville-la-Rivière (Normandy, France) and Their Archaeological Context. PLoS One 9 (10), e104111 (2014).