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Neanderthals similar to early modern humans

Paintings found in Spanish caves have been found to be at least 68,000 years old, meaning they were made 20,000 years before the entry of modern humans into Europe.

The artists, therefore, say a team led by Dirk Hoffmann from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, were Neanderthals. The paintings – located in caves called La Pasiega, Maltravieso, and Ardales – are the subject of a paper published in the journal Science.

Hoffman is also lead author of a second study, published in the journal Science Advances, analysing a collection of 120,000-year-old painted and perforated seashells found in another Spanish location, called Cueva de los Aviones.

Dating evidence reveals that the artefacts, like the paintings, were fashioned many millennia before the arrival of Homo sapiens, meaning that they, too, were the work of Neanderthals.

Hoffman and colleagues note that similar finds in Africa, attributed to modern humans, have been uncontroversially accepted as proxies for symbolic behaviour.

With only a few contested exceptions, symbols – artefacts and paintings, for instance – have not previously been discovered in Europe dating to any earlier than about 45,000 years ago. Thus, it has been assumed that symbolic thought and language were the exclusive province of humanity.

A symbolic painting done by Neanderthal hand in a Spanish cave 68,000 years ago.
Credit: CD Standish, AWG Pike and DL Hoffman

The caves of Spain, argue the researchers, give the lie to such cosy assumptions. Symbolic thought seems to have been present among our distant cousins, too. This, they suggest, makes it “possible that the roots of symbolic material culture may be found among the common ancestor of Neanderthals and modern humans, more than half-a-million years ago.”

The cave paintings comprise red and black depictions of animals, linear signs, ladder-like designs and hand stencils. To establish their age, Hoffman and his team used a method known as uranium-thorium dating, which establishes age based on the fixed decay rates between two radioactive isotopes: thorium-230 and uranium-234.

The team used carbonates recovered from directly underneath and directly on top of the paintings, thus uncovering the earliest and latest possible dates for when the pigment was laid down. Across all three locations, the most recent date revealed was approximately 68,000 years ago.

Other paintings stretched as far back as another 25,000 years, showing that symbolic painting for the Neanderthals wasn’t a short-term fad, but a long and established tradition.

The dating of the marine shells over at Cueva de los Aviones presented some problems, largely because they were embedded in a rock system that had been subject to subsidence many thousands of years ago.

Some of the shells had been uncovered in 1985, and largely left in place. A 2010 study led by João Zilhão of the University of Barcelona in Spain (a co-author of the current study), identified them as Neanderthal in origin, but dated them to only about 50,000 years ago.

By carefully teasing out the relationship between the sediment layers at the site, then applying thorium-uranium dating techniques, Hoffman’s team came up with a much more reliable – and much earlier – date. The shells all dated to within a 5000-year period, between 115,000 and 200,000 years ago.

The date range is significant on more than one level. It clearly shows that the artefacts were made before the arrival of modern humans in the area. Also, however, it makes them older than the earliest human symbolic material found anywhere in the world.

Hoffman and colleagues note that the earliest South African artefacts so far discovered date to about 79,000 years ago. A shell bead found at Grotte des Pigeons, Morocco, is estimated to be 82,000 years old, and perforated shells found at Qafzeh Cave in Israel are thought to be 92,000 years old.

The Spanish find, say the researchers, “substantially predates … anything comparable known in Africa or western Asia to date”.

This, combined with the painting evidence, they conclude, “leaves no doubt that Neanderthals shared symbolic thinking with early modern humans and that, as far as we can infer from material culture, Neanderthals and early modern humans were cognitively indistinguishable.”