Not Bob Ross: Carbon Dating Reveals Neanderthals Made Earliest Known Cave Art

Friday, 23 February 2018 - 10:44AM
Friday, 23 February 2018 - 10:44AM
Not Bob Ross: Carbon Dating Reveals Neanderthals Made Earliest Known Cave Art
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Image credit: adapted from work by Haiden Goggin/CC 2.0
We, as human beings, tend to be very pleased with our own accomplishments.

We're special, we like to think – of all of the creatures that have ever lived on Earth, only Homo sapiens is capable of sentient thought, complicated logic, and artistic expression.

It's true. Our species has a knack for all of those things. As for whether or not humans are the only species to create art, it turns out that we have been woefully dismissive of the artistic contributions of our early cousins: the Neanderthals.

Paintings found in three caves in Spain have been tested using state-of-the-art carbon dating techniques to determine when they were originally produced. It was believed that these paintings dated back to around 35,000 years ago, during the "creative explosion," a time when humans first started creating artwork.

As it turns out, we've been taking the credit for the work of another species. (Typical.) Advancements in carbon dating technology reveal that these cave paintings were first created around 65,000 years ago – long before modern humans arrived in that part of Europe. This means that the drawings must have been produced instead by Homo neanderthalensis. This completely changes our understanding of our now-extinct cousins' relative intelligence.

This is fascinating because it shows that Neanderthals could create pictures that required planning and forethought. It also contradicts a recently-published theory claiming Neanderthals died out because they weren't able to create representative art.

Traditionally, it's always been assumed that the Neanderthal tribes became extinct due to some weakness on their part. They simply weren't smart enough to endure in a rapidly changing environment. As such, humanity thrived where our dense relatives were unable to survive.

As we learn more about this period of pre-history, though, it's becoming clear that Neanderthals and humans were on a far more even playing field than previously believed. 115,000 years ago, Neanderthals were deliberately making holes in seashells, and there's evidence to suggest that they also practiced early forms of dentistry, communicated in song, wore jewelry, and buried their dead – possibly even with flowers.

Millennia later, we like to imagine that Neanderthals and humans were engaged in some kind of technological competition that humans ultimately won, while Neanderthals died out due to an inability to compete. It's not necessarily the case that these two species were involved in any kind of deliberate conflict, though. In fact, there's evidence of humans and Neanderthals interbreeding.

It seems that rather than dying out because of an inability to keep up with the Jones', Neanderthals were brought down by sheer bad luck – possibly as a result of diseases brought to their tribes by humans. Whatever killed off our cousins, it seems that the pendulum of fate could very easily have swung in the opposite direction and bumped off our own ancestors if we hadn't managed to fluke our way out of a tough situation or two.

It's a shame that Neanderthals didn't survive longer – it's fun to imagine what the world would be like if both sentient species grew and developed side-by-side.

Presumably, modern life would feel a lot more like The Flintstones, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Cover photo: adapted from work by Haiden Goggin/CC BY 2.0
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