For a long time, it seemed like art has separated humans from our less cultured relatives. But the recent discovery of cave art predating human settlement has challenged that story.
In southeastern Spain, archaeologists discovered more than a dozen paintings dating back to more than 65,000 years ago—before the first humans arrived in Europe. The artists, most likely Neanderthals, mixed pigments, made seashell beads, and painted symbols of their lives on the walls of caves. These discoveries suggest that our reputedly boorish cousins were just as sophisticated as humans.
In the same caves, archaeologists also found 115,000-year-old shell beads—the oldest personal ornaments known in the world. The wide range of dates—all of which predate Homo sapiens—make it unlikely that an isolated group of precocious Neanderthals were responsible. More likely, it suggests the species as a whole was innately creative.
Here’s Michael Greshko, reporting for National Geographic:
The [discoverers] argue that, despite their oafish reputations in pop culture, Neanderthals were the cognitive equals of Homo sapiens. If their results hold, the finds imply that the smarts underpinning symbolic art may date back to the common ancestor of Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, some 500,000 years ago.
“Neanderthals appear to have had a cultural competence that was shared by modern humans,” says John Hawks, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who wasn’t involved with the study. “They were not dumb brutes, they were recognizably human.”
The find clarifies a murky narrative that has taken shape over recent decades, which depicts Neanderthals as more sophisticated than their stereotype. During this time, archaeologists at various sites in Europe found paintings and crafts from around 40,000 years ago, when Neanderthals lived alongside early humans. Yet it was hard to prove that any of this art had been made by Neanderthals, and few archaeologists humored the idea.
While that question now appears to be settled, the debate over what it implies about human evolution is just beginning.