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Worlds oldest cave art crafted by Neanderthals, not humans

26 February 2018

The oldest similar such ornaments from early modern human sites in Africa date to about 80,000 years ago. They were enough like us that, in some cases, we had children with them. "We see them doing human things". In fact, researchers believe that due to 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 exclusively attributed to modern humans.

"The emergence of symbolic material culture represents a fundamental threshold in the evolution of humankind". "Artefacts whose functional value lies not so much in their practical but rather in their symbolic use are proxies for fundamental aspects of human cognition as we know it".

Among the works on display in these caves were paintings of animals, dots and geometric patterns, as well as hand stencils, hand prints and engravings.

With a new way to date the rock art, researchers carrying lights and scalpels crawled deep underground into caves all over Spain. The hand stencil, for example, requires preparation of the pigment and placement of the hand before the motif can be created.

These are the oldest artistic manifestations in the world dating back to 64,000 years ago. So the scientists used radioisotopes of uranium and thorium to conduct their tests, with results showing that the paintings were much older than previously thought. This dating technique relies on analyzing the isotopic content of the two elements and dating the sample by calculating the decay of Uranium 234 into Thorium 230. The most common dating method can only be used on organic material, like bones, so it usually doesn't work for cave paintings. Radiocarbon technique, which is now much more common, isn't able to date back far enough.

Researchers concentrated their efforts on the study of cave paintings in Spain dating at least 20,000 years before Homo Sapiens or modern humans arrived in Europe.

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"Neanderthals created meaningful symbols in meaningful places".

Alistair Pike, co-director of the report and an archaeology professor at the University of Southampton, said: "Soon after the discovery of the first of their fossils in the 19th century, Neanderthals were portrayed as brutish and uncultured, incapable of art and symbolic behaviour, and some of these views persist today.

The cave art must thus have been created by Neanderthals". And he said he'd like to see the dating in the cave art paper confirmed by another lab.

"Thanks to recent technical developments we can now obtain a minimum age for cave art using uranium-thorium dating of carbonate crusts overlying the pigments".

Neanderthals are believed to share the same ancestors as humans, and are the closest physical relative to Homo sapiens. "These Neanderthals were human", Hawks says. Image credits: J. Zilhão.

Joint lead author Dr Chris Standish, an archaeologist at the University of Southampton, said: "This is an incredibly exciting discovery which suggests Neanderthals were much more sophisticated than is popularly believed".

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The world's oldest known cave art was crafted by Neanderthals more than 20,000 years before modern humans arrived in Europe, showing that our extinct cousins were capable of symbolic thinking just like us, global researchers said Thursday.

Neanderthals also dyed and decorated marine shells.

The results showed that in all the three caves, there are drawings of at least 65,000 years old, but in the "Cueva de Los Aviones" were found perforated shells, as well as traces of pigments that date back to 115,000 years ago. "The art is not a one-off accident", said co-author Dr. Paul Pettitt, from Durham University, UK. "It is quite possible that similar cave art in other caves in Western Europe is of Neanderthal origin as well".

Taken together, the cave paintings and shells indicate the ability to think symbolically and creatively was not unique to modern humans. But it's possible that they exchanged symbolism or that Neanderthals influenced the art and symbolism of modern humans. "This is perhaps where we should be looking", Pike said.

"According to our new data Neanderthals and modern humans shared symbolic thinking and must have been cognitively indistinguishable", concludes Joao Zilhao, team member from the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies in Barcelona and involved in both studies. "Therefore, we can confidently say that the authors of these figures are Neanderthals", explains pike.

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Worlds oldest cave art crafted by Neanderthals, not humans