Quirks & Quarks

These paintings prove Neanderthals weren't so brutish after all

Neanderthal paintings demonstrate an ability for symbolic thought, planning and more.
Artwork dating back 64,000 years shows that Neanderthals developed the ability to make red ochre paints.

Neanderthal the Brute

The image of Neanderthals we're often presented with is a primitive and simple creature: a hulking mass of muscle, all brawn and no brains. The sloped forehead, mitt-like hands and protruding jaw suggested to many a mind far inferior to ours.

That perception of the brutish Neanderthal, it seems, was based more on an assumption of human superiority than evidence. New research published in the journal Science by Dr. Alistair Pike and his colleagues puts that idea to rest for good. It suggests that Neanderthals were capable of art — and that, in turn, means they were creative, planned for the future, and had the ability to ascribe meaning to symbols. In other words, they possessed the power of abstract thought.  

The Artist

Dr. Pike and his team used a clever approach to date cave art from three different caves in Spain. The artwork featured hand stencils, arrangements of red dots and abstract line figures made with red ochre pigments in the dark depths of the cave. Until now, most researchers had assumed it was made by early modern human colonizers in Europe. The team used uranium/thorium radioactive decay to determine the age of calcite deposits that have been deposited over the artwork over thousands of years. They found that these deposits on top of the art date back approximately 64,000 years — over 20,000 years before the appearance of modern humans in Europe. That means that the art had to have been made by Neanderthals.

The Inventor

This research opens the door to the idea that Neanderthals were in fact the first true artists on the planet. They might have even inspired the more recent artistic creations that adorn so many caves across the European continent.

Neanderthal cave art (credit: D. L. Hoffmann et al.)

4 years ago
4:40
Neanderthals, it seems, were capable of art, which suggests they had the ability to ascribe meaning to symbols, and had planning and creativity. 4:40

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