Friday, June 15, 2012

Neanderthals did NOT make cave art

The Panel of Hands in El Castillo Cave, Spain
This was all over the news today - news that the oldest cave paintings in Europe are older than previously thought. So old in fact, that they might have been created before modern humans even made it to Europe and might actually be the work of Neanderthals instead. I like to keep up on Neanderthal findings because they're cool (duh) and because I need to stay up to date on the latest findings for teaching. So I read the articles on popular news sites (The Daily Mail and MSNBC) and became a little confused. After I read the peer-reviewed Science article, I was shocked at what all these news sites were saying (and what the archaeologists they quoted were saying). In brief, after reviewing the evidence provided in the Science article and based on other recent publications on Neanderthals, I find that it is VERY unlikely that Neanderthals made any of this cave art. And this is why:

1. Of the 50 Uranium-series dates the authors obtained from the calcite overlying these paintings in 11 caves in Northern Spain, only ONE date was older than about 38,000 years (that date was 40,800 years before present). The rest of the dates ranged from very recently to 37,300 years BP. It is important to remember that these are minimum dates; the paintings could be older, but not younger than the calcite accumulating on top of them (I'll come back to this point).

2. Modern humans (that's us!: Homo sapiens) are known to have migrated into this part of Spain (from Africa via the Middle East) by 43,000-42,000 years ago - in plenty of time to make those cave paintings before 40,800 years ago.

3. Neanderthals were likely extinct in this part of Spain by 42,000 years ago (at least that is the most recently dated site we have for them in this area). (They may have survived for a few thousand more years in other parts of Europe - although the evidence for this is not as secure as we once thought it was).

4. There is not a lot of solid evidence that Neanderthals were capable of symbolic behavior from any other sites. This is a heavily debated topic as it has been reported that Neanderthals buried their dead (and only very rarely), made pendants for jewelry, and used red ochre and feathers for personal adornment. Having read many of these articles, I find most of the claims are very tenuous at best - mostly because the stratigraphy at many Neanderthal and early modern human sites in Europe is complicated - the layers are often mixed.

5. Modern humans were making artwork in Africa long before they ever left and long before the migrated to Europe. It is perfectly reasonable to assume that they began making cave paintings in Europe as soon as they got there.

To summarize, a couple of the paintings that were dated in this study were about 5-7,000 years older than expected. All the dates still fall in the time period after modern humans moved into Northern Spain. However, because these are minimum dates, it cannot be ruled out that some were created by Neanderthals prior to the arrival of modern humans. Based on all the reasons cited above, I think it is extremely unlikely that Neanderthals made cave paintings (or any artwork at all) and I am still shocked at how many archaeologists are claiming that this changes everything we thought we knew about Neanderthals.

That is not to say that I am adamately against the notion that Neanderthals were more like us than has long been assumed. I do think they were eerily similar to us and I do think there is good evidence that we interbred with Neanderthals in the Middle East around 100,000 years ago. But I have not been convinced that Neanderthals made artwork or anything else that indicates the capability for symbolic thought. I would like to believe that some day I could be convinced if solid evidence arose. And I think that some archaeologists are far too invested in this idea, so invested that they can't reasonably assess new evidence as it becomes available.

...and that is a topic for another blog post, one inspired by the book I recently read, The Fossil Chronicles: How Two Controversial Discoveries Changed our View of Human Evolution by Dean Falk. More soon!

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