First cave painters may have been Neanderthal

European cave paintings are older than previously thought, raising the possibility that Neanderthals rather than Homo sapiens were the earliest painters…That’s not yet certain: The paintings may have been made by humans at an unexpectedly early date, which would itself raise intriguing questions, though none so tantalizing as Neanderthal painters…

Researchers led by João Zilhão and Alistair Pike of the United Kingdom’s University of Bristol measured the ages of 50 paintings in 11 Spanish caves. The art, considered evidence of sophisticated symbolic thinking, has traditionally been attributed to modern humans, who reached Europe about 40,000 years ago…

Instead of carbon, Pike and João Zilhão’s team calibrated their molecular clocks by studying mineral deposits that form naturally on cave surfaces, including paintings. The thicker the deposits, the older the painting. And as the researchers describe in a June 14 Science paper, some of the paintings are very old indeed.

Some handprint outlines are at least 37,000 years old. Several red circles are at least 41,000 years old and may be several thousand years older. That’s 10,000 years older than paintings in France, which until now were considered the oldest cave art…

This is still just a hypothesis, one that needs to be tested by dating of many more paintings — the artists were not human. Maybe they were Neanderthals.

If so, the paintings would be a pièce de résistance addition to a decade of Neanderthal research that’s showed how our closest evolutionary relatives, long considered less intelligent than humans, were truly sophisticated thinkers capable of symbolism, social planning and empathy. Paintings would provide the last bit of evidence needed to throw out the image of Neanderthals as archetypally dumb, Zilhao said.

I’ve always been ready to be surprised by individuals of our own species and many others. You don’t need prohibitive odds to allow for a few specially talented individuals who exceed the norm of capabilities.

One thought on “First cave painters may have been Neanderthal

  1. rlodin says:

    That’s funny that you mention that – I was recently watching a documentary series called “origins of us” which goes through the evidence of Neanderthals being quite sophisticated – comparing their weapons and choice of shelter etc. and theorizes as to why exactly homo sapiens ended up being the dominant species with other closely related ones dying out.

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