It turns out that Neanderthals, not modern humans, were the first cave painters – and they were more than a trifle talented, scientists have revealed.
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Researchers from the University of Southampton and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany examined three cave paintings in Spain.
They found that the images of animals, geometric shapes and hand imprints were placed there more than 64,000 years ago, giving artistic credit to the Neanderthals who inhabited the region at that time.
Until recently, humans – who first moved into what is now Europe some 44,000 years ago – were thought to be responsible for cave paintings on the continent. Neanderthals were considered the "unintelligent" predecessor to humans.
The study, just released article in Science magazine, says differently.
Alistair Pike, co-director of the report and an archaeology professor at the University of Southampton, said: "Soon after the discovery of the first of their fossils in the 19th century, Neanderthals were portrayed as brutish and uncultured, incapable of art and symbolic behaviour, and some of these views persist today.
"The issue of just how human-like Neanderthals behaved is a hotly debated issue. Our findings will make a significant contribution to that debate."
Cave art is still mainly attributed to modern humans. However, using new uranium-thorium dating, the researchers found that the caves in La Pasiega, Maltravieso and Ardales in Spain dated back to the age of the Neanderthals.
Paul Pettitt, one of the researchers, said: "Neanderthals created meaningful symbols in meaningful places. The art is not a one-off accident. We have examples in three caves 700 kilometers apart, and evidence that it was a long-lived tradition.
"It is quite possible that similar cave art in other caves in Western Europe is of Neanderthal origin as well," he concluded, noting that the findings are opening the door to re-evaluating who produced other cave art previously credited to humans.
Chris Standish, another researcher, said the cave paintings suggest that "Neanderthals were much more sophisticated than is popularly believed."
The findings demonstrate "sophisticated behavior," such as considering lighting, painting materials and the mixing of colors.
Eric Trinkaus, a professor of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, tells the Boston Globe: "It is time to finally and completely stop treating the Neanderthals as semi-human and think of them as sophisticated past people living in a difficult world."