The Earliest European Cave Art Was Made by Neanderthals

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One geometric design looks like part of a ladder, forming rectangles. They painted red dots. The issue of just how human-like Neanderthals were has always been a topic of heated discussion among experts.

In a paper published Thursday in Science, an worldwide team of archaeologists shows that each of the three paintings was executed at least 64,000 years ago - more than 20,000 years before the first modern humans arrived in Europe.

"That material culture, archaeologically visible manifestations, only appears after 200,000 years ago probably means that it is at a time when individual and social interactions became so complex that conventions, signs, and symbols became necessary for the transmission of information about status, territory, ethnicity, rights over the resources of land, etc.", Zilhão explained.

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The common depiction of Neanderthals in popular culture is usually that of a brutish, often ape-like, humanoid character who has a degree of outward resemblance to modern humans, but relies nearly entirely on brawn, with very little brain power. But the bigger migration from the birthplace of humanity didn't begin until 60,000 years ago - and it took some time before populations settled in Europe.

While some archaeologists already viewed Neanderthals as more sophisticated than their commonplace caricature, the evidence until now has been inconclusive.

The findings have lead scientists to believe that many ornamental artefacts recovered from the Ice Age or Upper Palaeolithic Period which have been attributed to human craftsmanship may have been the result of cross-cultural influence with much older pre-existing Neanderthal communities. Indeed, if you are of European or Asian descent, it is likely that roughly 2% of your genome comes from Neanderthal ancestors.

Neanderthals are thought to have evolved in Asia and Europe from a common ancestor of humans and Neanderthals. Excitingly, the types of paintings produced (red lines, dots and hand stencils) are also found in caves elsewhere in Europe so it would not be surprising if some of these were made by Neanderthals, too.

The painted caves were discovered in Spain.

The paintings of animals, hand stencils and other drawings must have been made by Neanderthals, the team reports in the journal Science. Some of them were painted in pitch black areas deep in the caves - requiring the preparation of a light source as well as the pigment. Physicist Dirk Hoffmann of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology was among the dating experts on the team. The walls were the canvasses, and the paintings are bold and clearly not some kind of smeary accident. When the hand was removed, its "negative" was left, imprinted on the cave. A new technique called Uranium-Thorium dating is less destructive, is more accurate and can go back further in time than other methods.

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The ladder shape composed of red horizontal and vertical lines (center left) shown above dates to older than 64,000 years and was made by Neanderthals.

"Keep in mind, these are minimum ages", Hoffman said.

"We have examples in three caves 700km apart, and evidence that it was a long-lived tradition".

But cave paintings were one of the last bastions that appeared to differentiate anatomically modern humans from Neanderthals, who died out some 35,000 years ago.

"According to our new data Neanderthals and modern humans shared symbolic thinking and must have been cognitively indistinguishable", concludes Joao Zilhao, team member from the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies in Barcelona and involved in both studies. That technique showed the paintings were much older than first thought.

But the study proved that Neanderthals had the cognitive ability to understand symbolic representation.

The second study provided evidence that Neanderthals used pigments and piercings to modify shells some 115,000 years ago, which is far earlier than similar artifacts are associated with H. sapiens anywhere.

"We have spent 10 years refining the technique and have numerous quality controls", Pike said.

The paper, U-Th dating of carbonate crusts reveals Neandertal origin of Iberian cave art, is due for publication in Science on Friday, 23 February 2018. Roebroeks noted that the sample and dating work was done "carefully" by experienced archeologists.

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