For Over 20,000 Years, Neanderthals Spat Paint on This Stalagmite

Archaeologists put doubts to rest: 65,000-year-old daubings in Ardales Cave in Spain were deliberate, not accidents with ocher or bacterial secretions. But was it art?

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This picture obtained on July 29, 2021, shows details of splatter on a colored stalagmite in the Spanish cave of Ardales, southern Spain.
This picture obtained on July 29, 2021, shows details of splatter on a colored stalagmite in the Spanish cave of Ardales, southern Spain.Credit: JOAO ZILHAO - AFP

The cave of Ardales in Malaga, Spain was richly decorated in prehistorical times, with over 1,000 images created over thousands of years. Some of the images are figurative and were created by Homo sapiens, but some of the non-figurative markings are as old as 65,000 years – well before the earliest evidence of Homo sapiens in Europe. In a new study published on PNAS, a team of scientists say they are the product of Neanderthal painters who, Jackson Pollock-style, splattered ochre paint in their cave habitat for over 20,000 years – most likely spitting it out.

Why Neanderthals, you ask? Three caves in Spain have such daubings from that time, predating the proven advent of Homo sapiens to the area by about 20,000 years. With the caveat that modern humans may have reached Europe well before the earliest proof of their arrival (about 45,000 years ago), and with the additional caveat that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens had been interbreeding beforehand, when the first paintings were made the area was known to be inhabited by Neanderthals. If other species were there, we do not know but no fossil evidence of any has been found.

First, the team of scientists – from universities in Spain, Portugal, France and Germany – wanted to put to rest any lingering doubts regarding the human origin of the cave markings. Analysis of the iron-rich red pigment marking one huge stalagmite, dubbed “panel II.A.3 of Sala de las Estrellas,” from the Middle Pleistocene shows that it can’t have originated inside the cave. It had to have been brought in. The archaeologists also argue that the marks on the stalagmite didn’t come from ocher applied to the Neanderthals’ bodies or garb that accidentally rubbed off when they brushed against narrow cave walls, because the stalagmite is in the middle of a large chamber.

In other words, these paintings were human-made and deliberate, not accidents of nature or happenstance of clumsy body-painted cave-dwellers lurching about. Nor were these markings the result of some artistic burst at one point in time, but were created over a span of 20,000 years. Based on the variations in the composition of the pigment, the scientists say that the Neanderthals marked the cave in at least two painting events. Or, more likely, decorated the cave formations over a very long time.

But, the researchers wonder – what was their purpose?

This picture obtained on July 29, 2021, shows details of pigment on a colored stalagmite in the Spanish cave of Ardales, southern Spain.Credit: JOAO ZILHAO - AFP

Jackson Og woz ‘ere

Ardales is a cave system measured at 1,577 meters long – i.e., it’s big. It features two superimposed levels, which the archaeologists call the Lower and the Upper Galleries. The cave was discovered in 1821 after an earthquake re-opened a cave mouth that had been concealed by the crud of time. The rock art was first noticed in 1918, by French priest and archeologist Henri Breuil.

By now researchers have counted over a thousand graphic features in the Ardales cave system. Most are late-ish, from the Upper Paleolithic (50,000 to 12,000 years ago) and include both figurative and non-figurative engravings and paintings. The abstract, non-figurative red markings are mostly found near the cave mouth, not in the depths. Archaeological investigation has shown that to be the area of the cave used by Neanderthals.

Having established that the pigment wasn’t natural in origin, neither from minerals leaching or bacteria staining the cave, the team speculates what purpose it served. The PNAS paper does not purport to close the case, nor is that its main thrust, but the researchers’ speculation is interesting.

First, the technique provides useful clues. It seems we may have found the markings of a prehistoric Jackson Pollock. The red markings are characterized by “a central area with high color density surrounded by an aureole that features a gradual reduction in the concentration of red matter” – i.,e., somebody was splattering the proto-paint on the cave features. This is also indicated by the fact that some of the pigment appears in deep folds in the stalagmitic drapery – beyond arm’s reach, even a Neanderthal arm. The most likely explanation considering what we know of Neanderthal technology is that the artist spat it there.

This picture obtained on July 29, 2021, shows a general view of a partly colored stalagmite tower in the Spanish cave of Ardales, southern Spain.Credit: JOAO ZILHAO - AFP

Abstract symbolism in Neanderthal art has long been argued – in fact it is becoming quite clear that archaic humans predating both Neanderthals and Homo sapiens had a symbolic sense. In Germany, archaeologists found a deer bone that had been boiled and engraved with chevron forms, which dated to about 51,000 years ago. Again, the responsible party cannot be proven but the known population of the area at the time was Neanderthal. Meanwhile, Neanderthals are not known to have produced any figurative art: that remains the fief of Homo sapiens, like in the extraordinarily beautiful paintings in Lascaux, Chauvet and the even older ones in Indonesia, which date to more than 45,500 years of age.

But the markings in Ardales do not appear representative even of symbols: they lack any shapes or details. Why then might a Neanderthal, if such the artist was, spit red paint into the elegant drapes of a stalagmite, as well as apply it to the outside of the geological formation? Why make marks at all? Was it art?

Going by the postulated paint application technique and absence of discrete, clear representations – the team suggests the purpose was to mark it as “our territory.”

“Cultivating the link with the place, rather than associating it with a particular representation, must have been the main reason for marking the stalagmites,” they write. Ay Ardales, they suspect the vehicle of the symbolic information is “the large stalagmitic dome harboring the panel, not the panel itself... we believe that the dome is the symbol and the paintings are there to mark it as such “

And based on that, they suggest, the markings were not “art” in the narrow sense of the word. They were not designed to be pretty or to provoke ecstatic feelings, but perhaps to perpetuate the symbolic significance of that space – it is ours, ours, ours: and if so, perhaps rock art was born less as a matter of ritual and spirit and more as a place marker – at least in southern Europe. Later figurative paintings by the earliest sapiens arrivistes to southeast Asia and Europe, from warty pigs to grisly scenes of hunts are definitely art – but what they mean is open to interpretation.

This picture obtained on July 29, 2021, shows a close-up of partly colored stalagmites in the Spanish cave of Ardales, southern Spain. Credit: JOAO ZILHAO - AFP