64,000-year-old Cave Art Found: Neanderthal, or Did We Reach Europe Much Earlier Than Thought?

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La Pasiega cave wall with paintings. The ladder shape composed of red horizontal and vertical lines (center left) dates to older than 64,000 years and was probably made by Neanderthals, since there is no evidence of anybody else living there at the time. But there is mounting evidence that Homo sapiens did leave Africa earlier than thought, and since there is no other known Neanderthal art, it may be that modern men made this after all.
La Pasiega cave wall with paintings. The ladder shape composed of red horizontal and vertical lines (center left) dates to older than 64,000 yearsCredit: \ P. Saura
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Paleolithic cave art in Spain and Portugal turns out to be at least 64,000 years old, new analysis reveals. The revelation pushes back the earliest known art by around 20,000 years, when the only people known to be running around the Iberian hills were Neanderthals. But was it really our extinct cousins who did it?

The ancient art forms are symbolic but not figurative, explain their finders. In Spain, a cave in Maltravieso features hand stencils more than 66,000 years old, Prof. Dirk Hoffmann of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and others report in their paper, published Thursday in Science.

The La Pasiega Cave in Cantabria features a ladder form composed of red horizontal and vertical lines that was created more than 64,000 years ago, they say.

The third cave, in Ardales, Portugal, contains a red disc – which could be called early symbolic art, Hoffmann claims (others suggest it could be nothing or the sort, maybe a doodle).

Maltravieso Cave showing 3 hand stencils (center right, center top and top left). One has been dated to at least 66,000 years ago and was probably made by a Neanderthal (color-enhanced)Credit: Hipolito Collado Giraldo

Ardales Cave also sports splendid stalagmites that seem to have been decorated in at least two episodes: one earlier than 65,000 years ago, and again about 45,000 years ago.

La Pasiega. The scalariform (ladder shape) composed of red horizontal and vertical lines dates to older than 64,000 years and was probably made by NeanderthalsCredit: C.D Standish, A.W.G. Pike and D.

All three caves also have figurative animal images, but their dating remains uncertain. “There is no direct stratigraphy to the line that was dated,” Hoffmann clarifies. “We cannot make a claim that any of them were painted by the same artists who made the old art.”

Color-enhanced version of cave wall in Maltravieso with hand stencil older than 66,000 years. The image is believed to have been made by Neanderthals.Credit: H. Collado

The only hominins known to exist in Europe some 64,000 years ago were Neanderthals, so the obvious deduction based on evidence is that the artists were Neanderthals, says Hoffmann.

Yet Neanderthals existed for hundreds of thousands of years and their remains have never been associated with art. Some even argue that Neanderthals lacked the brain capacity for symbolic thinking.

So, either Neanderthals were capable of more than we thought, or Homo sapiens spread to Europe much earlier than supposed. Or maybe the artist was one of the famed human-Neanderthal hybrids, who knows?

Somebody painting shells 115,000 years ago

Further supporting the Neanderthal-as-artist theory, a related paper published Thursday in Science Advances reports that dyed and decorated seashells found in a Spanish cave dated to more than 115,000 years ago.

Homo sapiens has also been associated with shell painting going back possibly as much as 120,000 years. But those manipulated mollusks were found in Africa and the Near East: Neanderthals are not known to have been in Africa at all, though they were in the Near East. So these shells were associated with Homo sapiens.

A shell with remnants of pigments found in sediments in Cueva de los Aviones. It dates to between 115,000 and 120,000 years. Credit: J. Zilhדo

Now, the shells found in Spain derive from a time Homo sapiens is not known to have been around, while Neanderthals were. Or, as we said, possibly modern people spread Europeward much earlier than supposed.

A modern human jaw found in Misliya Cave, Israel dating to 200,000 years ago. It may show that modern people left Africa earlier than thought. Purists point out that geographically, Israel is AfricaCredit: Israel Hershkovitz / Tel Aviv Un

From the cave art 20,000 years predating the earliest known to have been made by Homo sapiens, and the decorated shells, the researchers concluded that Neanderthals' cognitive abilities were equivalent to that of modern humans.

Furthermore, the discovery of a human-like Neanderthal hyoid bone in Kebara Cave in Israel (in 1989) has led to speculation that they not only vocalized, as most animals do, but that they had language.

Chimps, for example, have completely different hyoids than humans, explains Prof. Yoel Rak of Tel Aviv University, who reported on the bone, while the hyoid in Neanderthal and humans is practically the same. (Being cartilaginous, the Neanderthal larynx, or voice box, wouldn’t have been preserved, so we can’t know about that.)

Perforated shells found in sediments in Cueva de los Aviones that date to between 115,000 and 120,000 yearsCredit: J. Zilhדo

Rak feels that humans and Neanderthals were so evolutionarily close that they surely had vocal communication – though he points out they didn’t need to be prehistoric Shakespeares in order to get their message across. Clicking sounds, drumming or sign language, for instance, could also work.

"Similarity in overall shape does not necessarily demonstrate that the Kebara 2 hyoid was used in the same way as that of Homo sapiens," pointed out a different team in PLOS One in 2013.

Whatever the Neanderthal could or could not say, the million-cowrie question is whether modern man was running around Iberia over 64,000 years ago along with his Neanderthal cousins.

No evidence has been found that we were, but that’s not evidence we weren’t. Fossil evidence of Paleolithic people is incredibly rare. Haaretz notes that of the extinct Denisovan species that may have ranged over Asia, all that’s been found is one finger bone and three teeth, in one cave, period. For all we know, the artists in Spain and Portugal were Denisovans. Or some other hominin entirely.

Curtain formation in Ardales cave with red pigment painted on it. Many areas of this stalagmite formation were painted in at least two episodes: before 65,000 years ago and 45,000 years agoCredit: D.L. Hoffmann

Neanderthal ascendant

There’s no argument that there were Neanderthals in Europe 64,000 years ago. Homo sapiens on the other hand was thought to have reached Europe only 45,000 to 40,000 years ago.

Drawing of image in La Pasiega by Breuil et al. (1913). The dating of the original drawing is uncertain, and the researchers are not stating that the artist was Neanderthal.Credit: Breuil et al. (1913)

“There is no evidence for modern humans in Iberia before 41,000 years ago, and there is evidence for Neanderthal presence until about 36,000 years ago in southern Spain and Portugal,” Hoffmann spells out. “If future evidence shows earlier presence of modern humans or of another human species, they might have to rethink who made that art – but only then,” he says.

Meanwhile, a mounting body of evidence indicates that Homo sapiens evolved significantly earlier than thought, and was seeping out of Africa much earlier than the consensus mass exit of about 65,000 years ago.

For instance, the jawbone found on Mount Carmel in Israel, which many think is Homo sapiens, dates to almost 200,000 years ago. And dozens of teeth found in a cave in Daoxian, China, dating to 80,000 to 100,000 years old have also been classified as human.

It seems Homo sapiens began to trickle out of Africa well over 100,000 years ago, and could have reached Ardales or Cantabria and coexisted with Neanderthals; we just haven’t found the evidence.

Neanderthal smarts

Did Neanderthals even have the capacity to make art? How “smart” were they? The concept of the Noble Neanderthal is very much in vogue. But the fact is, we still don’t know how “smart” the dog is, let alone the cat, and they’re alive and kicking. Deducing the brainpower of a species long dead is even harder. All we can go by is fossils, and artifacts Neanderthals left behind.

Which is exactly the point of Prof. Fred Coolidge of the University of Colorado, who finds the trendy theory of the artisanal Neanderthal irksome.

Curtain formation in Ardales with red pigment painted on: The curtain continued to form over parts with pigment after it was painted. A part of the formation was broken off, exposing the pigmentCredit: D.L. Hoffmann

Neanderthals existed for twice the time modern people have, if not more, and were once the dominant hominin in Europe. Yet artifacts touted as signs of their musical or artistic prowess are few: One crude scratching on a rock that looks mainly like a prehistoric game of tic-tac-toe; a perforated bone found in Slovenia from 80,000 years ago that could be a Neanderthal flute or the remains of a hyena’s dinner; and “buried” bones that cannot be proven to have been reverently interred, Coolidge says.

For the record, Rak doesn’t believe in the artistic Neanderthal: the evidence is just too rare, he says, but he does deem the flute “very persuasive.” Coolidge begs to differ: he doesn’t think that “flute” was a musical instrument.

Neanderthal-art proponents argue that the tic-tac-toe etching is an abstract depiction because somebody scratched two lines one way and two lines another. “They contrast these lines with the Chauvet Cave and say, ‘Oh, these are equivalent.’ No, they’re not,” Coolidge says, referring to the figurative cave paintings in southern France.

Paintings of lionesses from Chauvet cave, France, dated to more than 30,000 years ago - and definitely made by humans.Credit: HTO

Hoffmann argues that the artistic behavior of Neanderthals was evidently “not a one-off ‘Michelangelo moment,’ because they show different phases of painting activities in Ardales over a long period” – 20,000 years. Again, that assumes the painters were actually Neanderthal.

The scientists’ method (uranium-thorium dating of carbonate crusts overlying the art) is relatively new. “I would expect to find more paintings that were made by Neanderthals,” Hoffmann says. “But keep in mind that the longer ago a painting was made, the longer it is exposed and the less likely it is to survive until today. So there must be a bias toward younger cave paintings. Anyway, I strictly stick to evidence and do not speculate. Evidence only allows the conclusion that Neanderthals made the cave paintings.”

The woolly mammoth in the room

While Neanderthals may have etched a crisscross and perhaps carved a flute, look what Homo sapiens achieved, Coolidge says. The Paleolithic record is replete with exquisite works, from cave paintings to carvings done tens of thousands of years ago – such as the Lion Man sculpture found in a German cave and made of mammoth ivory some 38,000 years ago. The score is Neanderthals, practically zero; sapiens, everything else.

This suggests that what the 64,000-year-old art actually shows is that modern man was running around the hills of prehistoric Spain and Europe tens of thousands of years earlier than thought.

Horses and rhinos painted by Homo sapiens in Chauvet Cave, France, around 30,000 years ago (replica at Brno Museum)Credit: HTO

One piece of evidence arguing for Homo sapiens’ brains against Neanderthal limitations, Coolidge points out, is that we are here and they are not. “The woolly mammoth in the room is: they went extinct. Was it just an act of fate? There but for the grace of god go we?” Coolidge asks.

Neanderthal apologists postulate that if the extinction were replayed 1,000 times, half the times they’d have won and we’d have gone extinct instead. Coolidge doesn’t think so.

Even so, Neanderthals apparently weren’t the numbskulls envisioned by German biologist Ernst Haeckel, who suggested in 1866 that the beetle-browed being discovered a decade earlier be coined “Homo stupidus.”

Lion Man (or Lionness Woman, people are still arguing about that) from Löwenmensch, dating to about 32,000 years ago. Homo sapiens made this. Neanderthal is not known for making anything comparableCredit: Dagmar Hollmann / Wikimedia Comm

Even if Neanderthals didn’t make art, that doesn’t necessarily mean they were dim-witted. Coolidge argues merely that their brains anatomically differed from ours. There may have been other morphologically dictated differences that ultimately led to the rise of Homo sapiens at the expense of the Neanderthal. Per kilo of body weight, Neanderthals’ brains were apparently slightly bigger than ours. But research of whole and defective modern brains shows it’s brain shape that matters.

Going by skull shapes, humans have larger parietal and temporal lobes than Neanderthals. We also have larger cerebellums, Coolidge says. “While there is a school of anthropology that dismisses differences in brain shape, it’s hard to imagine that shape doesn’t matter, given the functions of those brain parts in modern humans,” he adds.

Cueva de los Aviones, where 115,000-year old decorated shells were found: Their finders believe they were made by Neanderthals.Credit: J. Zilhדo

Our bigger parietal lobes probably mean that whatever parietal lobes do, we do it better than Neanderthals did. Also, the expanding human parietal lobes grew into the superior part of the temporal lobes, which control speech and language. If parietal lobes, with their higher cognitive functions, were displaced into the brain area controlling speech, there had to have been cognitive consequences. That alone could have resulted in us surviving and Neanderthals going extinct, he postulates.

“There had to be some reason they went extinct. I don’t think they’d have won,” Coolidge sums up. We didn’t need warfare, he says: All modern man had to do to extinguish Neanderthal competition was to extract more resources from the same environment. How? Homo sapiens devised better weapons that killed more effectively and more safely for the killer, Coolidge explains.

See mammoth, spear it personally

Humans were more gracile than Neanderthals. Both were omnivorous, but a 2016 German study of collagen taken from prehistoric human bones concluded that around 40,000 years ago, at least, Neanderthals were eating only 20 percent vegetable and 80 percent meat.

“They had a varied diet, but could not live on fish and birds. Those didn’t have enough protein for them,” Coolidge says. That would have several implications – such as having greater need for great big animal prey. And if the humans hunted those to death, or just hunted them better? What were their options?

Parietal lobe expansion may explain another human characteristic: navel-gazing. Brain scans show the parietal lobes are the area for introspection. Coolidge surmises that a superior sense of selfhood led to better weapons.

“Neanderthals used very heavy spears, hafted spears with stone heads. Actually, you can’t throw those,” he explains. “It can’t enter into the side of a cow or a mammoth, because they cannot pierce as much as sharp stick does. You have to thrust it. Imagine a 6,000-pound rhino and you have to kill it with spears up close and personal. Meanwhile, 77,000 years ago, these gracile Homo sapiens – skinnier and taller – had already invented bows and arrows, which were an extension of self.”

Early humans also invented spears that were thrown from afar using an atlatl mechanism.

Flowstone section in Cueva de los Aviones covering the archaeological horizonCredit: J. Zilhדo

Does all that mean the Neanderthals couldn’t have made the 64,000-year-old cave art? Not necessarily. “I think it needs to be reconsidered what was necessary in terms of brain structure to make art,” suggests Hoffmann.

Noble or not, Neanderthals went extinct. One theory for their demise that doesn’t feature inferior weapons, introspectiveness or artistic abilities is Neanderthal cannibalism. There is plenty of evidence, including from around 130,000 years ago, when they were presumably not stressed by competition with Homo sapiens.

Eating the brains of the ir brethren could have caused them to develop the incurable neurodegenerative condition called kuru – the human equivalent of mad cow disease.

Tales from the cerebellum

Also, Neanderthals had a smaller cerebellum than modern man.

Not that anybody is sure what our brains do, but we think the cerebellum handles higher thinking, abstracting rules, making internal models of the environment and of what we’re thinking about, Coolidge explains.

We get input from the parietal lobe of what environment looks like and what we’re thinking; the cerebellum makes a model and sends it back. That is why, when these things become automatic to us and we don’t have to think too much about what we need to do, our minds can be free to come up with intuitive ideas and innovation. Freed of the need to think hard, we can become creative.

And social. The Neanderthal brain seems to have devoted more space to movement and vision compared to Homo sapiens, leaving “less room for the higher-level thinking required to form large social groups,” writes anthropologist Robin Dunbar from the University of Oxford.

Paleolithic humans could sustain groups of up to 120 people or so, for which they would need social thinking: “We had to know who are our allies and cheaters,” Coolidge explains.

Neanderthal groups were smaller, probably up to 10, and maxing out at perhaps 40 individuals.

And now they are gone. “They went extinct for some reason that I don’t think is just a quirk of fate,” Coolidge says. “I think the seeds of their own destruction could have been, for one thing, that we were better at extracting resources from our environment, while they had to rely on big meat. When Aurignacians came out of the Levant last time, around 77,000 years ago, they went into Europe with fully modern minds and brains, doing highly ritualized burials – children like sunbeams. And the Neanderthal kept moving, west, into Portugal, where the last one died.”