Some European cave paintings are older than previously thought, implying that Neanderthals might have been their creators rather than Homo sapiens. It’s not yet certain, but some of the earliest paintings that were dated raise interesting questions, including whether Neanderthals were painters.
At a press conference on June 13th, archaeologist João Zilhão stated that it wouldn’t be surprising if Neanderthals were Europe’s first cave artists. Researchers led by João Zilhão and Alistair Pike of the UK’s University of Bristol, measured the age of 50 paintings in 11 different Spanish caves. It was thought that humans made these drawings, which displays evidence of sophisticated symbolic thinking, when they reached Europe 40,000 years ago.
The dating techniques previously used were somewhat clumsy. The best technique, carbon dating, cannot discern the difference of a few thousand years. Instead, the team used mineral deposits that formed naturally on cave surfaces. They published their findings in the journal Science.
Some of the handprint outlines are at least 37,000 years old. Some of the red circles are 41,000 years old and could be several thousand years older. This is 10,000 years older than the paintings found in France, which were considered the oldest cave art.
Humans would have needed to arrive in Europe already possessing a symbolic art tradition, something for which there’s no evidence of. However, it’s still possible that H. sapiens completed the work, if they developed the art-making thinking promptly.
If not, Neanderthals could have been sophisticated thinkers, capable of symbolism, social planning and empathy.