Neanderthals made cave paintings too

New research reveals cave art was created before the arrival of modern humans, meaning we weren’t the only species with an artistic bent.

In a new study, researchers dated cave art in Spain with a technique called uranium-thorium dating. This approach shows that the paintings predate human arrival in the area by 20,000 years, meaning the artists who created them were Neanderthals. Until now, a lack of suitable dating techniques meant that the chronology of early cave art was poorly understood, and as a result it was always attributed to modern humans. Now it seems art, which requires symbolic thinking and is often considered one of the defining characteristics of Homo sapiens, is something we had in common with Neanderthals.

We spoke with one of the authors, Chris Standish of University of Southampton, about the work.

ResearchGate: Can you tell us a little about what you discovered?

Standish: We have discovered that some cave art in Spain was painted by Neanderthals. We dated a red linear motif in La Pasiega (northern Spain) to before 64.8 ka (64,000 years ago), a red hand stencil in Maltravieso (western central Spain) to before 66.7 ka, and we have demonstrated that curtain-stalagmite formations in Ardales (southern Spain) were painted with red pigment on more than one occasion including between 45.3 ka and 48.7 ka and before 65.5 ka. These motifs all therefore predate the arrival of modern humans in Spain and must have been created by Neanderthals.

Panel 78 in La Pasiega. The scalariform (ladder shape) composed of red horizontal and vertical lines dates to older than 64,000 years and was made by Neanderthals. Credit: C.D Standish, A.W.G. Pike and D.L. Hoffmann.

RG: How did you date the paintings?

Standish: We dated carbonate crusts that were in direct association with cave art by uranium-thorium dating. Uranium-thorium dating is a well-established technique that has been used to date the mineralisation of speleothems – secondary carbonate formations found in caves like stalagmites and stalactites – for decades and relies on the natural decay of trace amounts uranium present in the carbonate. By dating speleothems that have been used as a “canvas” for cave art, we are provided with a maximum age for the art. Dating small carbonate formations often found on top of cave art provides a minimum age.

RG: What does this mean for our understanding of Neanderthals?

Standish: Neanderthals undoubtedly had the capacity for symbolic behaviour. There was already tantalising evidence that they used items including pigment, shell beads, and feathers, presumably for personal adornment, but the fact that they also produced cave art really does demonstrate that they had similar cognitive abilities to modern humans. Furthermore, our evidence shows that this was not a one-off event – it occurred in at least three caves in different areas of Spain, and in Ardales it was created on multiple occasions. It also cannot be considered accidental, as the dated motifs require premeditation and planning. The hand stencil, for example, requires preparation of the pigment and placement of the hand before the motif can be created. Neanderthals were not an uncultured or behaviourally inferior species to Homo sapiens as they have typically been portrayed in the past. They were more like their equal.

RG: How did the paintings survive so long?

The paintings discussed here are all found deep within their respective caves, where environmental conditions are relatively stable compared to the outside world. This has undoubtedly helped their preservation. Pigment art found in cave entrances or rock shelters are exposed to greater fluctuations in temperature or the full force of the weather, so are far less likely to survive tens of thousands of years. In some cases, the dated carbonate formations that overlay the pigment may also have helped preserve the art to some degree. Of course, what we do not know is how much art has been lost over the years. It may well be that the motifs we are dating here are exceptional cases of preservation, and many more were painted but have since been lost.

Drawing of Panel 78 in La Pasiega by Breuil et al (1913). The red scalariform (ladder) symbol has a minimum age of 64,000 years but it is unclear if the animals and other symbols were painted later. Credit: Breuil et al.

RG: Is there anything about the art that leads you to believe it was done by Neanderthals other than the date?

Standish: No, there’s no other way to definitively link Neanderthals to this art, the only secure way to determine authorship is to decipher when it was created and compare this to the material culture in the archaeological record from the same period.

RG: What would you like the public to take away from your study?

Standish: Neanderthals and Homo sapiens are comparable from a cognitive perspective – they are, or were, equally “human.” Modern humans are not the only hominin group to create art or to practice symbolic behaviour, Neanderthals did so too. Thus, behavioural modernity can no longer be considered unique to our own species. The origins of such developments are likely to be far older than previously thought, perhaps as far back as the time of the last common ancestor of Homo sapiens and Neanderthals over half a million years ago.

Featured image is panel 3 in Maltravieso Cave showing 3 hand stencils (center right, center top and top left). One has been dated to at least 66,000 years ago and must have been made by a Neanderthal (color enhanced). Credit: H. Collado.