Neanderthals, our ancient human cousins, were smarter and more culturally evolved than previously thought. Not only had they successfully built different kinds of tools out of bone and wood, a new study shows that they also made cave art before the arrival of Homo sapiens. This is an interesting development as it has been thought that one of the possible reasons for the Neanderthals going extinct is their inferiority in terms of cognitive abilities. It also challenges the idea that Homo sapiens were the intellectually superior group and Neanderthals picked up whatever abilities they had by copying them.
The research, led by D.L. Hoffman from Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, and C.D. Standish from the University of Southampton, was carried out using a technique called uranium-thorium dating to determine the age of cave paintings at three different sites in Spain. Hoffman and team found that the paintings were at least 64,000 years old, the oldest cave art discovered until now. Modern humans did not arrive in Europe until 20,000 years later, which led them to the conclusion that Neanderthals were the creators of this art.
Modern humans and Neanderthals are believed to have evolved from the same ancestor, Homo heidelbergensis. According to theories, a group of the Homo heidelbergensis left Africa between 500,000 to 600,000 years ago. This group split, one part going to Europe and West Asia and evolving into Neanderthals, the other part going towards East and evolving into Denisovans. The part of the original population that remained in Africa became Homo sapiens, our direct ancestors. Modern humans share a small part of their DNA with both Neanderthals and Denisovans. Neanderthals and Homo sapiens also co-existed and interbred at one point, around 70,000 years ago, when Homo sapiens left Africa and came to Eurasia.
All instances of the dated cave art consist of dots, discs, lines, and hand stencils. The authors write, “Regardless of whether concentrations of color, dots, disks, and linear motifs can be conceived as symbolic, hand stencils (which, unlike positive hand prints, cannot be created by accident) require a light source and previous selection and preparation of the coloring material—evidence of premeditated creation. Because a number of hand stencils seem to have been deliberately placed in relation to natural features in caves rather than randomly created on accessible surfaces, it is difficult to see them as anything but meaningful symbols placed in meaningful places.”
João Zilhão, the co-author of the study and an archaeologist, said, “When you have symbols, then you have language.”
Apart from the symbols in the art, Hoffman and Zilhão were part of a second research that found that Neanderthals used marine shells as jewellery. Until now, the presence of such a material culture had only been associated with early modern humans. Neanderthals, however, used marine shells 115,000 to 120,000 years ago. Modern humans haven't been seen to use such materialistic symbols till 20,000 to 40,000 years after this.
“In conjunction with the evidence that cave painting in Europe dates back to at least 64,000 ago, it leaves no doubt that Neandertals shared symbolic thinking with early modern humans and that, as far as we can infer from material culture, Neandertals and early modern humans were cognitively indistinguishable,” the study says. The researchers have also suggested that these skills for creating symbols and the culture of materialism may have been present in the common ancestor, from which both Neanderthals and Homo sapiens inherited these traits.