The Neanderthals were our closest relatives, living alongside us until they died out ~30,000 years ago. Why they went extinct is one of the biggest mysteries in human evolution. They were very similar to us, yet we flourished and they all died. Over the years dozens of key “differences” have been postulated, but the number with actual scientific support decreases by the day. Just look at this table of abandoned differences:
You’ll notice that “art” remains on the list. That’s something of a sticky issue because Neanderthal art isn’t exactly unknown1. However, human art from the period tends to be much more complex and we have a lot more of it. There’s also the issue that there isn’t enough time difference between humans and Neanderthal art; with the latter appearing to post-date Neanderthals’2 first encounters with us in the Middle East3. There’s always a slim chance they learned it from us.
As such, most people think there was some key artistic differences between us (which just raises the question, is that even significant?).
However, a new find from Croatia may well put some of this disagreement to rest (in turn, creating further debate over what made humans special after all). Eagle talons have been discovered with the tell-tale sign of being fashioned into a necklace (or bracelet). Crucially, they come from a site only associated with Neanderthals and ~130,000 years old. That makes them much older than humans and Neanderthals first meeting; and even older than the first human necklaces4!
Another (perhaps more) significant aspect of this discovery is the quantity of the talons; and the fact that they were the only necklacified bones present at the site. Based on this the discovers claim that these necklaces were symbolic4; carrying a special significance with the Neanderthals. Maybe they represented membership in the tribe, or who was a really good eagle hunter.
If there is some special, evolutionary significance to art then it seems to be present in these Neanderthals.
So, humans may have made more art; maybe even better art. But the Neanderthals were doing it first. Is that significant? Is this all barking up the wrong tree? Your guess is as good as mine at this point.
- Rodríguez-Vidal, J., d’Errico, F., Pacheco, F. G., Blasco, R., Rosell, J., Jennings, R. P., … & Finlayson, C. (2014). A rock engraving made by Neanderthals in Gibraltar. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,111(37), 13301-13306.
- Zilhão, J., Angelucci, D. E., Badal-García, E., d’Errico, F., Daniel, F., Dayet, L., … & Zapata, J. (2010). Symbolic use of marine shells and mineral pigments by Iberian Neandertals. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,107(3), 1023-1028.
- Schwarcz, H. P., Grün, R., Vandermeersch, B., Bar-Yosef, O., Valladas, H., & Tchernov, E. (1988). ESR dates for the hominid burial site of Qafzeh in Israel.Journal of Human Evolution, 17(8), 733-737.
- Radovčić D, Sršen AO, Radovčić J, Frayer DW (2015) Evidence for Neandertal Jewelry: Modified White-Tailed Eagle Claws at Krapina. PLoS ONE 10(3): e0119802. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0119802