New dating methods have pushed back the creation dates for a series of cave paintings in Spain, long thought to have been created by early modern humans. For some anthropologists, the new dates suggest that maybe Neanderthals, who arrived in Europe before Homo sapiens (modern humans), actually painted the caves, which suggests a new level of ability and development for a species often considered the dumb brute of the human family tree.
The cave paintings in question are located in Northern Spain, along the Cantabrian coast. The paintings are simple, though some of the most enigmatic display the outlines of several handprints, over which a bison was later painted. The paintings were thought to be between 25,00 to 30,000 years old. But new dating – which analyzed the rate of decay in uranium found in calcium deposits over the paint – has pushed back their creation to at least 40,800 years ago and possibly longer.
And that’s where the Neanderthals come in, maybe. Scientists have dated the arrival from Africa of modern humans in Europe to about 38,000 years ago. So if the cave paintings in Spain were created earlier than the arrival of modern humans that means one of a few things: Homo sapiens either arrived in Europe earlier than we thought, did not “arrive” per se but developed in Europe, along with other locations around the globe, or Neanderthals created the paintings.
Scientists tend to chime in on one side of the argument or the other. Prehistoric cave painting, and there are several notable examples in France as well as in Spain, is a sign of symbolic thinking – the trait that differentiates humans from the rest of the animal world.
Though there is speculation that some of the paintings of animals were meant to show hunting routes or migration patterns, the fact remains that some cave paintings – the wall of handprints in Spain is a good example – appear to serve no practical purpose, and thus stray into the realm of the symbolic.
Because some archaeologists and anthropologists claim there is no other evidence of symbolic behavior in Neanderthals, they say there is no viable argument to suggest that Neanderthals would have created cave paintings. Instead, they say, modern humans created the cave paintings in Spain, and were therefore – one way or another – in Europe several thousand years earlier than previously thought.
The debate centers, in part, around what became of Neanderthals. While not direct ancestors of humans, Neanderthals are our closest relative on the human family tree. They lived throughout what is now Britain, Europe, and the Near East for more than 250,000 years, and adapted to and migrated according to drastic climate changes. They were well-established in Europe and the Near East when the first Homo sapiens record appears in these regions.
Homo sapiens were better tool-makers and hunters, and it’s widely believed that either through violence or assimilation, they essentially wiped out Neanderthals, though it was a slow process. Evidence confirms that the two species lived simultaneously – if not together and in harmony – for several thousand years. A revolutionary discovery in 2010, in conjunction with the cracking of the human genome, confirmed that Neanderthal DNA is present in modern human populations. This suggests that inter-species mating occurred. Or, as the pro-Neanderthal camp puts forward, it suggests that Neanderthals were actually the same species as modern humans, and were essentially just a different race.
The pro-Homo sapiens crowd offers that Neanderthals were too primitive to have created the cave paintings in Spain, and lacked the capacity for symbolic thinking. But, we know that Neanderthals decorated their tools, they crafted beads – possibly for self-adornment – and they used pigments, either to decorate animal hides or their own skin. In another mark of their capacity for “human-like” behavior, they cared for the sick and injured. And even more importantly, they buried their dead, rather than leave them to be eaten by animals. Though there is thus far no evidence of grave goods in Neanderthal burials, that they interred their dead at all suggests they possessed some level of self-awareness, another trait we identify as “human.”
As a former graduate student in anthropology, I have a slightly-better than layperson’s knowledge of anthropology and archaeology and early human origins. I won’t weigh in on whether Neanderthals were actually a race of humans or whether they were their own separate species. But it seems awfully anthro-centric of us to decide what defines “human” behavior. The evidence exists that Neanderthals had complex abilities and something beyond rudimentary thought processes. So when it comes to the cave paintings in Spain, my money’s on our Neanderthal cousins. Or is that siblings?
See National Geographic for more on the new dates for the cave paintings in Spain.
See Smithsonian magazine for a comprehensive, if slightly outdated article on Neanderthals.