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Did Neanderthals Produce Cave Paintings?

This cave art was made around 37,300 years ago, when both Neanderthals and humans inhabited Europe. Credit Pedro Saura.

It may be time to stop using the word Neanderthal as an insult for people we think lack culture, intelligence and any concept of aesthetics.

Or at least that’s what Spanish Neanderthal expert João Zilhão would argue. He’s just published a paper in Science that identifies Neanderthals as possible artists for three paintings in Spain’s El Castillo and Altamira caves.

The work suggests stereotyping Neanderthals as “dumb” may be incorrect, Zilhão says. “From what we know of Neanderthals, there’s no reason to think they didn’t have the capacity” to be creative artists.

Zilhão and his colleagues used an interesting method (more on that later) to date the cave art to between 35,600 and 40,800 years ago…  a time when both Neanderthals and early humans likely coexisted in Europe. (They also dated some 47 other cave paintings, whose younger ages finger humans as the artists.)

This is not the first time Zilhão has found evidence suggesting Neanderthals in Europe were neither cognitively inferior nor less creative than their Homosapien contemporaries in Africa.

In 2010, he was first author on a PNAS paper that reported a cache of painted marine shells on the Iberian Peninsula in Spain that were produced by Neanderthals.  These shells were dated to 50,000 years ago, about 10,000 years before early humans showed up in Europe.

These 50,000 year old shells were used by Neanderthals to produce body paint. Credit: PNAS.

The shells contain mineral pigment makeup that required some skill and know-how to produce. (The makeup was composed of fool’s gold, aka pyrite, and ground hematite, which can be red and black, all mixed in to a base of the rust-colored mineral, lepidocrocite)

Not only did this research show Neanderthals were chemists, but it also suggests they painted themselves and wore jewelry.

Of course, it’ll take many more of these discoveries before the entire research community is convinced that Neanderthals weren’t as dumb as we thought. (I’m reminded that history is written by the winners—us humans.)

In fact, the other cool part of the current Science paper is that Zilhão and his colleague Alex Pike in Bristol used an uncommon technique to date the cave paintings. This method could be used to accurately determine the age of many more cave paintings, which could help provide additional evidence that Neanderthals were relatively civilized—or not.

Since radiocarbon dating is not reliable for determining the age of cave art, the scientists relied on a method that measures the levels of uranium and thorium found in calcite crusts that build up on top of the cave art. (Calcite is the same mineral in stalagmites and stalactites.)

Red discs like these in El Castillo Cave have been dated as 40.600 years old. Credit: Pedro Saura

Trace amounts of uranium but not thorium are found in the water that deposits the calcite on top of the art. Since uranium can radioactively decay to thorium over time, comparing ratios of uranium and thorium in the cave art can provide an age for the calcite.

Since the calcite used in the study is removed from above the cave art, the age of the calcite is a minimum age for the art.

The uranium-thorium dating technique is decades old but researchers initially required gram-sized samples to do the analysis. This is much too large a sample to remove from valuable art or artifacts, and in this case, much more calcite than could be responsibly removed from above the cave art.

More recently, the analytical technology has improved such that only milligrams of sample are required to do the analysis, making the method amenable for precious artifacts and art.

In fact, Pike says that when they remove the calcite from on top of the cave wall, they are careful to stop before actually reaching the layer of art so that it is not damaged or depleted.

Pike and Zilhão say they’ve already began dating more cave art across Europe with this technique. I’m looking forward to finding out whether their new discoveries mean we start using the word Neanderthal to describe oldschool, original artists—or whether we go back to using the term as a soft slur.

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