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First Painters May Have Been Neanderthal, Not Human
http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2012/ ... paintings/
By Brandon KeimEmail Author June 14, 2012 | 2:10 pm | Categories: Anthropology, Brains and Behavior
European cave paintings are older than previously thought, raising the possibility that Neanderthals rather than Homo sapiens were the earliest painters.
That’s not yet certain: The paintings may have been made by humans at an unexpectedly early date, which would itself raise intriguing questions, though none so tantalizing as Neanderthal painters.
“It would not be surprising if the Neanderthals were indeed Europe’s first cave artists,” said João Zilhão, an archaeologist at Spain’s University of Barcelona, at a press conference on June 13.
Researchers led by Zilhão and Alistair Pike of the United Kingdom’s University of Bristol measured the ages of 50 paintings in 11 Spanish caves. The art, considered evidence of sophisticated symbolic thinking, has traditionally been attributed to modern humans, who reached Europe about 40,000 years ago.
Traditional methods of dating cave paintings, however, are relatively clumsy. Even the previous best technique — carbon dating, or translating amounts of carbon molecule decay into measurements of passing time — couldn’t discern differences of a few thousand years.
Instead of carbon, Pike and João Zilhão’s team calibrated their molecular clocks by studying mineral deposits that form naturally on cave surfaces, including paintings. The thicker the deposits, the older the painting. And as the researchers describe in a June 14 Science paper, some of the paintings are very old indeed.
"Anyone ... could walk into El Castillo cave and see a Neanderthal hand on the wall."
– Alistair Pike
Some handprint outlines are at least 37,000 years old. Several red circles are at least 41,000 years old and may be several thousand years older. That’s 10,000 years older than paintings in France, which until now were considered the oldest cave art.
If H. sapiens made the Spanish paintings, they would have needed to arrive in Europe already possessing a symbolic art tradition, something for which there’s no other evidence.
Alternatively, humans may have arrived in Europe and promptly learned to paint, raising the question of why such an important cultural leap occurred so suddenly, in that particular place. Maybe something about the environment, such as competition with Neanderthals, made symbolic thinking important.
Or — and this is still just a hypothesis, one that needs to be tested by dating of many more paintings — the artists were not human. Maybe they were Neanderthals.
If so, the paintings would be a pièce de résistance addition to a decade of Neanderthal research that’s showed how our closest evolutionary relatives, long considered less intelligent than humans, were truly sophisticated thinkers capable of symbolism, social planning and empathy. Paintings would provide the last bit of evidence needed to throw out the image of Neanderthals as archetypally dumb, Zilhao said.
“What’s really exciting about this possibility,” said Pike, “is that anyone, because it’s open to the public, could walk into El Castillo cave and see a Neanderthal hand on the wall.”
First Image: The Panel of Hands in El Castillo Cave, Spain. The hand stencils are dated to 37,300 years old and the red disk to 40,600 years old, making them the oldest European cave paintings. (Photo: Pedro Saura) [High-resolution]
Citation: “U-Series Dating of Paleolithic Art in 11 Caves in Spain.” By A. W. G. Pike, D. L. Hoffmann, M. García-Diez, P. B. Pettitt, J. Alcolea, R. De Balbín, C. González-Sainz, C. de las Heras, J. A. Lasheras, R. Montes, J. Zilhão. Science, Vol. 336 Issue 6087, June 15 2012.