We’ve long believed that one of the characteristics that separates us – Homo sapiens – from other species is our ability to create art. However, artworks found deep within some Spanish caves have astonished scientists. Why? Because 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 was always assumed that only we humans created it. Some of the most famous cave art was discovered in the Chauvet Cave in Southern France, and we can be almost certain that this work was produced by Homo sapiens.
We know that the art at Chauvet was created by Homo sapiens because the cave paintings there 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. So, it follows that it must have been these humans who created the stunning wall paintings.
Other examples of Stone Age cave paintings were discovered in the Lascaux Cave, also in France. On the walls of this cave are some 6,000 images depicting a variety of animals, among them deer, aurochs and horses. The site also contains pictures of humans alongside images that are abstract.
The Lascaux paintings are about 20,000 years old – a little younger than those at Chauvet. But both of these sets, along with other cave paintings that have been discovered, were undeniably created by Homo sapiens. They therefore fit in with the theory that humans came from Africa into Western Europe some 45,000 years ago.
Yet there was another species of hominin in Western Europe at the time that Homo sapiens arrived on the landscape: the Neanderthals. In keeping with the prevailing popular image, for many years after the existence of Neanderthals was discovered, it was thought that they were a rather primitive species. They certainly wouldn’t have been capable of creating art – or so it was believed.
Neanderthal bones were first uncovered by workers at a limestone quarry in Germany’s Neander Valley 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, soon to be dubbed Homo neanderthalensis.
It was initially thought that Neanderthals were very different from modern humans. Their protruding brows and heavy limbs seemed to suggest that their brainpower was far 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 they held a ritual respect for the departed. And there’s even evidence that they used herbs as medicine. Hence, the picture of Neanderthals as little more than dumb animals had certainly been superseded.
In addition, we now know that humans and Neanderthals interacted in Europe. Indeed, they even interbred. Research has shown that on average, the DNA of modern Europeans is about 2 percent Neanderthal; and modern Asian peoples’ DNA contains approximately the same amount.
Now to the best of our scientific knowledge, Neanderthals became extinct about 40,000 years ago. That means they almost definitely existed in Europe alongside Homo sapiens for a period of several thousand years. Yet what drove these hominins – whom we now know were of considerable intelligence – to extinction?
There are a range of theories about why the Neanderthals disappeared. Perhaps humans arrived and simply wiped out these hominins by killing them all. Or maybe Homo sapiens brought with them diseases to which the Neanderthals had no resistance, resulting in epidemics and widespread 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? Well, some evidence of Neanderthal creativity has actually been found over the years. French scientists discovered jewelry dating back 43,000 years that is believed to have been fashioned by Neanderthals. Perhaps these artifacts had artistic or symbolic meanings.
In any case, though, 43,000 years ago takes us to the period when Neanderthals were sharing territories with Homo sapiens. It’s therefore possible that the Neanderthals were simply mimicking behavior they’d observed in their human cousins. Yet the ability to copy in this way in itself suggests 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 40,000 to 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 the radioactive decay of uranium as it slowly transforms into thorium.
And the unequivocal age of these paintings is no less than 65,000 years. That’s at least 20,000 years before Homo sapiens arrived in Spain. The only beings capable of making such art who were around in this geographical region at that time were thus Neanderthals. So, scientists deduced that it must have been our hominin cousins who created the images.
All of the cave paintings at the three sites are, interestingly, abstract in nature. There are Neanderthal handprints, red dots set in patterns and geometric shapes. And Professor Stringer told the BBC that these new discoveries show Neanderthals were certainly able to think symbolically. “[The finds] 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.”
In conclusion, 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 therefore definitely 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 2 percent Neanderthal yourself.