Oldest Known Cave Art Found To Be Of Neanderthal Origin, Shows Symbolic Behavior

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This hand stencil art that's covered with calcite was found to be over 66,000 years old. It is only one example of Neanderthal art in the caves of Spain.   ( H. Collado | Max-Planck-Gesselschaft )

The dating results of the ancient cave art in three Spanish caves revealed a significantly earlier date of creation than previously thought. This suggests that the cave art was made by Neanderthals and not by the early modern humans. What could this mean for the understanding of humans' ancient cousins?

The Oldest Dated Cave Paintings In The World

In the past, symbolic culture has been largely attributed to early modern humans. In fact, it has been seen as one of the basic foundations of the development of humanity as it is today. However, a new study shows that perhaps the homo sapiens aren't the only ones to engage in art and symbolic culture, as researchers found that the cave art in Spain was likely made by Neanderthals.

In a study published in the journal Science, researchers detailed the meticulous method in which they gathered data to accurately date the cave art in three Iberian sites. Instead of using the traditional radiocarbon dating, the team used uranium-thorium (U-Th) dating to determine the age of the cave art while still keeping the art intact.

What they found was that the paintings are actually over 64,000 years old, which is significantly older than they previously believed. In fact, it is the oldest known cave art to date. Interestingly, the art now predates the arrival of modern humans into Europe by about 20,000 years, suggesting that it must have been the Neanderthals who made them.

Symbolic Thinking Among Neanderthals

In a second study published in Science Advances, the researchers explored the possible implications of their findings in regard to the understanding of Neanderthal thinking and behavior. As it happens, they also found perforated marine shells and shell containers with complex pigmentation at the Cueva de los Aviones site, suggesting symbolic thinking and behavior. When subject to dating, they were found to be about 115,000 to 120,000 years old, 20,000 years older than comparable symbolic behavior in modern humans in South Africa.

The results of the studies show that contrary to previous beliefs wherein Neanderthals were seen as devoid of symbolic behavior and thinking, they were perhaps more complex in thought and behavior. In fact, this essentially debunks the previous attribution of practically all cave art to modern humans and more importantly, the view of Neanderthals as an uncultured and brutish group.

The Human Family Tree

Humans are still in the process of trying to understand mankind's origins. The results of the study add to the understanding of the similarities and differences between the early modern humans and their relatives. In fact, researchers believe that because of their findings, the possible root of symbolic material culture may have been a common ancestor of the Neanderthals and modern humans, whereas in the past, the behavior was solely attributed to modern humans.

"According to our new data Neanderthals and modern humans shared symbolic thinking and must have been cognitively indistinguishable," said João Zilhão of the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies, coauthor of both studies.

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