Trending Science: I’m an artist, not an uncultured caveman!

Findings overturn the belief that modern humans were Earth’s first artists. Our extinct, distant cousins the Neanderthals seem to hold that distinction now.

We’ve always thought of art as a behaviour unique to our species, something distinctly human. Surely, it was far beyond the capability of our perceived inferior evolutionary cousins.

Apparently, we’re not the only ones to express ourselves through art, nor the first for that matter! Neanderthals brought art to this world by painting on cave walls long before humans. Did these stooped, brutish, hairy and dumb humans actually have an artistic side to them? Really?

Europe’s first painters

A new study published in the journal ‘Science’ reveals that the world’s oldest known cave paintings were made by Neanderthals, not modern humans. They made cave drawings in Spain – the birthplace of Pablo Picasso of all places – that predate the arrival of modern humans in Europe. State-of-the-art methods used on cave art date the paintings to at least 65 000 years ago, or 20 000 years before modern humans arrived in Europe from Africa.

These findings suggest that the Palaeolithic artwork must have been made by Neanderthals, the only humans inhabiting Europe then. The research team has found only abstract expressions of art.

Neanderthals finally shed bad rep label

There’s a belief among the archaeological community that Neanderthals were more sophisticated than universally thought, but evidence is inconclusive. Until now, that is. Alistair Pike, professor of archaeological sciences at the University of Southampton, who co-led the study told ‘Reuters’: “What we’ve got here is a smoking gun that really overturns the notion that Neanderthals were knuckle-dragging cavemen.”

The early art at three cave sites hundreds of kilometres apart includes symbols, hand stencils and geometric shapes. Creating these involved specific skills, including mixing pigments and selecting appropriate display locations.

Researchers used a precise dating system to determine the accurate age of the paintings. For analysis, they chafed a few milligrams of calcium carbonate deposit from the paintings.

What’s more, there’s evidence to support a long artistic tradition. Neanderthals appear to have used painted seashells as jewellery. A second related paper published in ‘Science Advances’ found that dyed and decorated seashells from a different Spanish cave were also made by them some 115 000 years ago.

Quoted by the ‘BBC’, Pike said: “The issue of just how human-like Neanderthals behaved is a hotly debated issue. Our findings will make a significant contribution to that debate.” He added: “The next big question is: did Neanderthals make figurative art? We’ve got hand stencils, we’ve got lots of red dots and we’ve got these lines. We want to know whether there are paintings of the kind of animals they were hunting.”

Pike now wants to understand just how extensive Neanderthal art was. He’s planning to date and study cave markings in France and other countries. He may have turned the field of human evolution upside down with his findings, but there’s one question that will never be answered: What could Neanderthals have accomplished had they not died out about 40 000 years ago when their direct ancestors settled in Europe?

last modification: 2018-03-09 17:15:01

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