When did humans start making art and neanderthals also became artists?

Bisonte Magdaleniense pol? Chrome

Painting of a bison from the Altamira cave complex

Altamira National Museum and Research Center/CC BY-SA 3.0

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When we think about art, we often think about the recent past. The famous cave art in Lascaux, France, is often said to be 17,000 years old. The second French cave, Chauvet, has similar fascinating paintings dated to 30,000 or more years ago – but that date is controversial, with some archaeologists saying the paintings are very beautiful. to be that old. When you consider our species, Homo sapiensis probably over 300,000 years old, and our genus Homo has existed for over 2 million years, those few tens of thousands of years are a very short period of time. Why did people start painting so late at night, and why didn’t other hominins like Neanderthals do it?

Well, it’s possible that we actually made art earlier than that, and so did Neanderthals and other groups like the Denisovans. There are two barriers to this demonstration: prejudice against the idea that other hominins can express themselves in a symbolic way, and issues with physical evidence.

In early June, I spent a few days with holidaymakers on a New Scientist Discovery Tour dedicated to prehistoric rock art in the caves of northern Spain. The center of the tour is Altamira, the first place where ancient European cave art was found – in 1879, even before Lascaux and Chauvet were discovered.

How old is European cave art?

As part of my preparation, I tried to find out as much as I could about each cave on the itinerary. But I keep having the same problem: knowing how long the artwork lasts. In Altamira, that’s because the paintings have lasted a long time: one is 36,000 years old, the other is 22,000, while the artefacts in the cave are as little as 14,000 years old.

But in other cases, the dates vary for each artwork. Take the Hornos de la Peña cave, for example. It has so many carvings of animals, drawn with remarkable anatomical accuracy. Spain’s official tourism website says they were created in two stages, one started at least 18,000 years ago and another close to 15,000 years ago. However, a 2014 study lists dates obtained for artworks, and from approximately 10,000 years ago to more than 30,000 years ago. Part of the problem is that the cave was disrupted: it was used as a shelter in the Spanish civil war, and further altered to allow tourists to visit.

Similarly, El Pindal’s cave has many pictures of horses and bison, with a thrown fish and a mammoth. Again, there is no specific date. The same Spanish tourism website has them between 13,000 and 18,000 years old, while a book chapter from 2007 identifies El Pindal as one of the few caves in the region where the art dates there. problem.

I spoke with Alistair Pike at the University of Southampton in the UK, who studied the age of cave art, to clarify the dates of the paintings. He told me that only “a small, small proportion” of cave art is reliably dated.

Some of the reasons for this are good. Until recently, the primary method of finding the age of a piece of cave art was radiocarbon dating. It’s inherently destructive – you have to scrape off a sample – and it’s clear that the cave keepers are slow to give permission. Furthermore, carbon dating only works if there is organic material such as charcoal in the art; for engravings, and anything painted only with minerals, it is useless.

Unfortunately, there are also bad reasons not to practice carbon dating. “People think they can tell the age of cave paintings by the style in which it’s depicted,” Pike said. Since the first ancient art was discovered in the late 1800s, there has been a feeling that art should evolve linearly: the oldest pieces should be so simple and abstract, that later ones become more technical and creative. So the skepticism about Chauvet, despite the paintings is carbon-dated.

This line of thinking was comprehensively exposed in a 2011 study by April Nowell and Genevieve von Petzinger, then both at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada. By asking the experts at each cave to explain why they believe the artwork is at some age, Nowell and von Petzinger discovered a massive loop of circular logic. The artwork in the separate caves is assumed to be the same age because they are similar, so the art of cave A is so many thousand years old because it is like the art of cave B – except that the experts in cave B based their own cave age estimates A.

“Everything revolves around a big circle,” Pike said. “It’s one of the most beautiful pieces of work I’ve seen.”

Cave of Altamira and Paleolithic Cave Art of Northern Spain

Paleolithic cave art in northern Spain

Yvon Fruneau/UNESCO

Are Neanderthals also artists?

If most of the given ages are false, our ideas about who made the art are also false.

Successive hominins settled in western Europe and could theoretically have produced cave art in the region. Modern humans are the last settlers, having permanently settled in the region about 45,000 years ago after exiting Africa. Before that, Europe and western Asia were inhabited by Neanderthals for hundreds of thousands of years. And before that, another hominin wanted Homo antecessor is around.

If all cave art in western Europe was less than 30,000 years old, it could only have been made by our species. But in cases where researchers like Pike have obtained reliable dates, that hasn’t always proven true.

In 2012, Pike’s team showed that a red dot on the wall of the El Castillo cave in northern Spain was at least 40,800 years old. That’s old enough to be borderline: Neanderthals are still around, so they can make the point.

The team did this using uranium-thorium dating. It does not see the age of the art itself, but the age of a thin mineral that rests on it. These layers form when water drips on the cave wall, depositing minerals that gradually form. The dating technique tells us when the mineral layer was formed, giving the minimum age for art.

In a follow-up in 2018, Pike’s art team dated three more Spanish caves. The first is La Pasiega, which is on the same hill as El Castillo. A symbol made of red lines appears to be at least 64,800 years old. The second is the Maltravieso in western Spain, where a hand stencil has been proven to be at least 66,700 years old, making it the oldest cave art known in the world. Finally, some of the red paint on the stalagmites in the Ardales cave on the southern coast of Spain has been at least 65,500 years old.

When I mention these dates to holidaymakers in northern Spain, there are audible gasps. They were a knowledgeable and engaged audience, but these results and their changing importance did not sink in. If art is really this old, the most plausible explanation is that Neanderthals made it.

Accordingly, Pike pointed to other sites with evidence of symbolic behavior of Neanderthals, back in prehistory, but previously discarded. In the Bruniquel cave in southern France, there is a round rock made of broken stalagmites that are 175,000 years old. The pigments in the shells in the Aviones cave in southern Spain are 115,000 years old. There is evidence of Neanderthals collecting ocher, a red pigment often used in cave paintings, at Maastricht-Belvédère in the Netherlands at least 200,000 years ago.

Marshall’s First Act

Pike’s team has struggled to make further dating over the past few years, partly because of the covid-19 pandemic and partly because “archaeologists who don’t want to paint Neanderthals have generally banned us from taking samples” . However, he hoped that other groups would have more luck, eventually developing a strict timeline of cave art. He suspects that the making of art may go back to the unknown common ancestor we shared with Neanderthals, hundreds of thousands of years ago.

Art could be another example of what in a previous newsletter I called my own aggrandising Marshall’s First Law: Never be surprised when something turns out to be older than you thought. A recent study used artificial intelligence to identify hidden evidence of controlled fire at a site in Israel from 1 million years ago-hundreds of thousands of years before evidence for the use of fire spread. I will put up the possibilities that the painting and symbolic expression will also get older, once we start to look good.

The main difficulty we face is that art is fragile. The objects in the caves survive because they are very stable environments – especially if the entrance collapses, keeping people out for millennia. But perhaps people are expressing themselves all over the place, as can be seen in the Côa valley in Portugal where there are thousands of open-air carvings from at least 10,000 years ago. Simply put, most outdoor art is long gone. “The scene is full of symbols,” Pike said, “and very few of them survive.”

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