We’ve long believed that one of the things that separate us – Homo sapiens – from all other species that have ever existed is our ability to create art. But some artworks that have been found deep in Spanish caves have astonished scientists. And these discoveries mean that we have to think again about our theories of human exceptionalism.
Cave art has been found in many parts of the world, and until recently it has always been assumed that only we humans created it. Perhaps some of the most famous cave art was discovered in the Chauvet Cave in Southern France. And we can be sure that this art was made by Homo sapiens.
We know that it was created by Homo sapiens because these cave paintings at Chauvet have been dated authoritatively to about 30,000 years ago. At that time, the only hominin – or human-like – species on Earth was Homo sapiens. As a result, it must have been them who created these stunning wall paintings.
Other examples of Stone Age cave paintings were discovered in the Lascaux Cave, also in France. There are some 6,000 images on the walls of this cave depicting a variety of animals such as deer, aurochs and horses. And the site also contains pictures of humans and images that are abstract.
The Lascaux paintings are about 20,000 years old, a little younger than those at Chauvet. But both these sets, along with other cave paintings that have been discovered, were undeniably created by Homo sapiens. They fit in with the theory that Homo sapiens came from Africa into Western Europe about 45,000 years ago.
But there was another species of hominin in Western Europe at the time that Homo sapiens arrived on the Western European landscape – the Neanderthals. Of course, for many years after the existence of Neanderthals was discovered, it was thought that they were a rather primitive species. They would certainly not be capable of creating art, it was believed.
Neanderthal bones were first discovered by workers at a limestone quarry in the Neander Valley in Germany in 1856. At first these strange – almost human – bones were actually thought to be from a deformed human. But scientists quickly realized that they were dealing not with Homo sapiens but with a different species, dubbed Homo neanderthalensis.
It was thought initially that Neanderthals were much different to modern humans. Their protruding brows and heavy limbs seemed to suggest that their brain power was much inferior to that of Homo sapiens. However, from the 1950s onwards, opinions about the Neanderthals began to change.
In recent decades, scientists and archaeologists have discovered that Neanderthals made stone tools, just as early humans did. They also buried their dead in a way that suggests a respect for the departed. And there’s even evidence that they used herbs as medicine. So the picture of Neanderthals as little more than dumb animals had been entirely superseded.
In addition, we now know that humans and Neanderthals interacted in Europe. Indeed, they even interbred. DNA research has shown that, on average, the DNA of modern Europeans is around 2 percent Neanderthal. Modern Asian peoples’ DNA contains approximately the same amount.
To the best of our scientific knowledge, Neanderthals became extinct about 40,000 years ago. That means that they almost certainly coexisted in Europe with Homo sapiens for a period of several thousand years. But what drove these hominins, who we now know were of considerable intelligence, to extinction?
There is a range of theories about why the Neanderthals disappeared. Perhaps humans arrived and simply wiped out the Neanderthals by killing them all. Or maybe Homo sapiens brought diseases with them to which the Neanderthals had no resistance, resulting in epidemics and death. A third theory is that humans simply out-competed Neanderthals for scarce resources.
But what about creative pursuits? Were Neanderthals capable of making art? In fact, some evidence of Neanderthal creativity has been found over the years. French scientists discovered jewelry dating back 43,000 years that was believed to have been fashioned by Neanderthals. Perhaps these artifacts had artistic or symbolic meanings.
But 43,000 years ago takes us to the period when Neanderthals were sharing territories with Homo sapiens. So it’s possible that the Neanderthals might have simply have been mimicking behavior they’d observed in their human cousins. Nonetheless, the ability to copy does in itself suggest a certain level of sophistication.
“Some previous claims for Neanderthal symbolic behavior had dating uncertainties or lay within inferred overlaps between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens 40-60,000 years ago, meaning that they could still be attributed to modern humans, or to the influence of modern humans on Neanderthal behavior,” the London Natural History Museum’s professor Chris Stringer told the BBC in February 2018.
Then along came some stunning discoveries of cave art at three locations in Spain, as reported in the journal Science in February 2018. These particular artworks had been carefully dated using an advanced technique that measures radioactive decay of uranium as it slowly transforms into thorium.
And the unambiguous age of these paintings is 65,000 years. That’s at least 20,000 years before Homo sapiens arrived in Spain. The only beings capable of making this art who were around in Spain at that time were Neanderthals. So scientists deduced that it must been our hominin cousins who created the images.
All of the cave paintings at the three sites are abstract in nature. There are Neanderthal handprints, red dots set in patterns and geometric shapes. Professor Stringer told the BBC that these new discoveries show that Neanderthals were certainly able to think symbolically. “[The discoveries] further narrow any perceived behavioral gap between the Neanderthals and us,” the professor asserted.
Speaking to the BBC, Alistair Pike, a professor at the University of Southampton, said, “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.”
So it seems we can no longer claim that our species is unique in its ability to create art – Neanderthals did so quite independently of us. We’ve certainly come a long way from the stereotypical view of Neanderthals as knuckle-dragging numbskulls. And remember: if you’re European or Asian, whether you’re an artist or not, you’re probably two percent Neanderthal yourself!