A new study shows that paintings in three cave sites on the Iberian Peninsula — a red linear motif in Cave of La Pasiega, a hand stencil in Maltravieso Cave, and red-painted speleothems in Ardales Cave — were created more than 64,000 years ago. These cave paintings are the earliest dated so far and predate, by at least 20,000 years, the arrival of modern humans in Europe, which implies Neanderthal authorship.
“The emergence of symbolic material culture represents a fundamental threshold in the evolution of humankind. It is one of the main pillars of what makes us human,” said lead author Dr. Dirk Hoffmann, from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany.
“Artifacts 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.”
“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 behavior, and some of these views persist today,” said senior author Professor Alistair Pike, from the University of Southampton, UK.
“The issue of just how human-like Neanderthals behaved is a hotly debated issue. Our findings will make a significant contribution to that debate.”
Published this week in the journal Science, the study reveals how Dr. Hoffmann, Professor Pike and co-authors used a state-of-the-art technique called uranium-thorium dating to fix the age of the Iberian cave paintings as more than 64,000 years.
Until now, cave art has been attributed entirely to modern humans, as claims to a possible Neanderthal origin have been hampered by imprecise dating techniques.
However, uranium-thorium dating — a very precise dating technique based on the radioactive decay of uranium isotopes into thorium — provides much more reliable results than methods such as radiocarbon dating and determines the age of calcium carbonate formations up to an age of 500,000 years.
“Dating cave art accurately and precisely, but without destroying it, has so far been difficult to accomplish,” Dr. Hoffmann said.
“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.”
The researchers analyzed more than 60 carbonate samples from La Pasiega (north-eastern Spain), Maltravieso (western Spain) and Ardales (south-western Spain) cave sites.
All three caves contain red (ochre) or black paintings of groups of animals, dots and geometric signs, as well as hand stencils, hand prints and engravings.
Creating the art must have involved such sophisticated behavior as the choosing of a location, planning of light source and mixing of pigments, according to the team.
“This is an incredibly exciting discovery which suggests Neanderthals were much more sophisticated than is popularly believed,” said co-author Dr. Chris Standish, an archaeologist at the University of Southampton.
“Our results show that the paintings we dated are, by far, the oldest known cave art in the world, and were created at least 20,000 years before modern humans arrived in Europe from Africa — therefore they must have been painted by Neanderthals.”
“Neanderthals created meaningful symbols in meaningful places. The art is not a one-off accident,” said co-author Dr. Paul Pettitt, from Durham University, UK.
“We have examples in three caves 700 km apart, and evidence that it was a long-lived tradition. It is quite possible that similar cave art in other caves in Western Europe is of Neanderthal origin as well.”
D.L. Hoffmann et al. 2018. U-Th dating of carbonate crusts reveals Neandertal origin of Iberian cave art. Science 359 (6378): 912-915; doi: 10.1126/science.aap7778
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