Long before Picasso, ancient artists in what is now Spain were making creative works of their own, mixing pigments, crafting beads out of seashells, and painting murals on cave walls. The twist? These artistic innovators were probably Neanderthals.
Dated to 65,000 years ago, the cave paintings and shell beads are the first works of art dated to the time of Neanderthals, and they include the oldest cave art ever found. In two new studies, published Thursday in Science and Science Advances, researchers lay out the case that these works of art predate the arrival of modern Homo sapiens to Europe, which means someone else must have created them.
In three caves scattered across Spain, researchers found more than a dozen examples of wall paintings that are more than 65,000 years old. At Cueva de los Aviones, a cave in southeastern Spain, researchers also found perforated seashell beads and pigments that are at least 115,000 years old.
“The Aviones finds are the oldest such objects of personal ornamentation known to this day anywhere in the world,” says study coauthor João Zilhão, a University of Barcelona archaeologist. “They predate by 20 to 40 thousand years anything remotely similar known from the African continent. And they were made by Neanderthals. Do I need to say more?”
The authors 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.”
In 1856, limestone quarry workers in Germany’s Neander Valley found bones that at first seemed to belong to a deformed human. Scientists of the time soon concluded that the large-browed, barrel-chested figure belonged to a distinct hominin species: Homo neanderthalensis.
At the time, Neanderthals were considered more brawn than brains, with one scientist even suggesting that they be classified as Homo stupidus. But since the 1950s, researchers have jettisoned the knuckle-dragging stereotypes. Neanderthals buried their dead with care, crafted stone tools, and used medicinal plants.
Genetic evidence also shows that Neanderthals and modern humans interbred: About two percent of modern European and Asian DNA traces back to Neanderthals.
Some researchers had been reluctant, though, to say that Neanderthals could make symbolic art. Based on the evidence at the time, it seemed that early European art didn’t flourish until a major wave of modern Homo sapiens arrived on the continent about 40,000 to 50,000 years ago.
Other studies did complicate the narrative. In France, scientists found jewelry made by Neanderthals around 43,000 years ago. In one Spanish cave, similarly ancient charcoal lies alongside cave paintings. But none of these sites substantially predated H. sapiens‘s arrival, leaving the door open to the idea that Neanderthals merely copied their new, more cultured neighbors.
“If you were to get a hundred representative archaeologists and ask them whether Neanderthals painted caves, 90 percent of them would say no,” says study coauthor Alistair Pike, an archaeologist at the University of Southampton.