Neanderthals produced cave art, research shows

Paintings on a section of La Pasiega cave wall where the ladder shape composed of red horizontal and vertical lines dates to older than 64,000 years

"The emergence of symbolic material culture represents a fundamental threshold in the evolution of humankind".

They occupy three sites at La Pasiega, Maltravieso and Ardales - situated up to 700 kilometres apart in different parts of Spain.

The caves contain a rich assortment of red ochre paintings of lines, dots, hand stencils and animals, said study co-author Dirk Hoffmann of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. "For me it wouldn't be surprising to find rock art made by neandertals, but unfortunately I'm not fully convinced", Ríos Garaizar told BuzzFeed News by email.

Three hand stencil drawings in Maltravieso Cave.

An "archaic" human species that branched from the modern human family tree 400,000 years ago, Neanderthals were marked by a thick brow and rounded, stumpy thigh bones, along with brains as large as ours. A new technique called Uranium-Thorium dating is less destructive, is more accurate and can go back further in time than other methods. This dating technique relies on analyzing the isotopic content of the two elements and dating the sample by calculating the decay of Uranium 234 into Thorium 230. "The only way to constrain the age of a given painting is by dating the calcite found on top, or under it".

Until now, cave art has been attributed entirely to modern humans, as claims to a possible Neanderthal origin have been hampered by imprecise dating techniques, researchers said.

"Neanderthals created meaningful symbols in meaningful places".

Future studies could reveal many more caves where art was likely done by Neanderthals, said study co-author Paul Pettitt of Durham University.

Neanderthals invented art 20,000 years before the ancestors of Henri Matisse and Claude Monet thought of daubing pictures of prehistoric bison on cave walls, a study has found.

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"Dating cave art accurately and precisely, but without destroying it, has so far been hard to accomplish", adds Hoffmann.

"Thanks to recent technical developments we can now obtain a minimum age for cave art using uranium-thorium dating of carbonate crusts overlying the pigments". The issue of just how human-like Neanderthals were has always been a topic of heated discussion among experts.

"Neanderthals appear to have had a cultural competence that was shared by modern humans", says John Hawks, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who wasn't involved with the study. Thus, behavioural modernity can no longer be considered unique to our own species. For example, in 2011, scientists found the alleged "palette" - a conch shell, covered with paint and working tools of the ancient artists age in 100-150 thousand years, conducting excavations in the cave Blombos in South Africa. Image credits: J. Zilhão.

"This is an incredibly exciting discovery which suggests Neanderthals were much more sophisticated than is popularly believed", said Chris Standish, an archaeologist at the University of Southampton in the UK.

Neanderthals, rather than humans, created the world's oldest known cave paintings, according to new research that suggests our extinct cousins, whose name over the years has become synonymous with "unintelligent," had greater abilities than previously known.

Neanderthals also dyed and decorated marine shells.

From the murky depths of Spanish caves comes a surprising insight: Neanderthals created art.

"This is certainly just the beginning of a new chapter in the study of ice age rock art", says Gerd-Christian Weniger of the Foundation Neanderthal Museum Mettmann, one of the leaders of the Ardales excavations.

The research suggests that cave men were not just brutes, but brainy. 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. "On our search for the origins of language and advanced human cognition we must therefore look much farther back in time, more than half a million years ago, to the common ancestor of Neanderthals and modern humans".

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