Spain cave findings: Europe's art scene began with Neanderthals, not Homo sapiens


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

That has been proposed before, but experts say two new studies finally give convincing evidence that our evolutionary cousins had the brainpower to make artistic works and use symbols.

The key finding is new age estimates showing that paintings on cave walls and decorated seashells in Spain were created long before our species entered Europe — there is no way Homo sapiens could have made them or influenced Neanderthals to merely copy their artwork.

Plenty of evidence already exists to debunk the myth that Neanderthals were knuckle-dragging brutes, and instead were capable of decorative impulses and rituals, like burying their dead.

But cave paintings were one of the last bastions that appeared to differentiate anatomically modern humans — people who looked essentially like us — from Neanderthals.

Until now, most scientists thought all cave paintings were the work of our species. But the new work concludes that some previously known paintings — an array of lines, some disks and the outline of a hand — were rendered about 20,000 years before Homo sapiens moved into Europe.

That is a surprise that “constitutes a major breakthrough in the field of human evolution studies,” said Wil Roebroeks of Leiden University in the Netherlands, an expert on Neanderthals who didn’t participate in the new work.

Now, he said in an email, Neanderthal “ownership of some cave art is a fact.”

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 Homo sapiens anywhere. That shows Neanderthals “were quite capable of inventing the ornaments themselves,” said Paola Villa of the University of Colorado Museum in Boulder, who also didn’t participate in the new work.

Neanderthals lived in Europe and Asia before disappearing about 40,000 years ago, around the time Homo sapiens moved into Europe from Africa.

The research, released Thursday by the journals Science and Science Advances, focused on determining the ages of previously known artifacts.

One team of European researchers concentrated on painted artwork in three caves in northern, southern and west-central Spain. They carefully removed tiny bits of rocky crust that had formed on the artwork surfaces and analyzed them in a lab. Results indicated artwork from all three were around 65,000 years old, much older than the arrival of Homo sapiens in Europe, which occurred some 45,000 to 40,000 years ago.

The researchers analyzed more than 60 tiny samples from the three caves using uranium-thorium dating of carbonate crusts overlying the pigments. The technique is based on the rate at which radioactive isotopes of uranium decay into thorium.

It can determine the age of calcium carbonate formations going back as far as 500,000 years, much further than the widely used radiocarbon method.

The artwork is rudimentary, but a study author, Dirk Hoffmann of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, said it is symbolic. One work is a collection of lines that look like a ladder, and others include red dots and disks on curtain-like rock formations. Another is a stenciled outline of a hand, made by spewing pigment over a hand held against the wall, Hoffmann said. One has been dated to at least 66,000 years ago.

Making the hand stencil involves so many steps, including preparation of the pigment, that it is clearly a deliberate creation, he and other authors wrote in the paper. What is more, a number of hand stencils seem to have been placed with care rather than randomly, so they are certainly “meaningful symbols,” the authors wrote.

The other study sought to find the age of shells that had been colored and punctured in another cave, in southeast Spain. Previous studies had estimated an age of 45,000 to 50,000 years old, too young to rule out a link to Homo sapiens.

For the new work, researchers analyzed rock that had formed above where the shells had been found.

Results indicated the shells were around 115,000 years old. That is some 20,000 to 40,000 years older than comparable artifacts in Africa or western Asia that are attributed to Homo sapiens. The finding shows Neanderthals shared symbolic thinking with Homo sapiens, and suggests the two species were “indistinguishable” in terms of overall mental ability, the researchers wrote.

Nobody knows what the shells symbolized. Maybe they indicated membership in a group like a clan, said Joao Zilhao of the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies in Barcelona, Spain, who did the study with Hoffmann and others.

Not all experts were convinced by the studies. Harold Dibble, an archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania who studies Neanderthal behavior, wondered if the shell color and holes could have occurred naturally. And he said he would like to see the dating in the cave art paper confirmed by another lab.

Warren Sharp of the Berkeley Geochronology Center in California, an expert on the dating technique used in both papers, said he found the results of both studies to be “very solid.”

They show “we are not the only ones capable of ‘modern’ behavior,” he wrote in an email.