Life in a Neanderthal cave was surprisingly human. They built structures, created jewellery, and cared for each other. To top it all of, we recently learnt they decorated their walls with cave art.

This discovery comes courtesy of a series of Spanish caves that contain the oldest cave art we’ve ever found. In fact, it’s so old that only Neanderthals could have made it. As such, this discovery is a double whammy; confirming cave art is both ancient and Neanderthal1.

Or does it? Perhaps this cave art isn’t actually that old. Or maybe, it doesn’t even count as art2!

Is Neanderthal cave art actually Neanderthal?

The old Neanderthal cave art has been known about for years, although we only recently realised it was old and Neanderthal. However, not everyone was convinced. Many are skeptical of the art’s old age which, after all, is the main argument for Neanderthals being responsible2, 3.

A lot of this skepticism stems from how the art was dated. It’s impossible to figure out how old the pigments actually are. So instead, researchers began examining the calcium carbonate deposits covering it. These provide a minimum age for the art since it must predate their formation, telling us it’s at least 64,000 years old1.

Or at least, that’s the theory.

Ardales art, with the dated segments highlighted with boxes

In reality, there’s much skepticism over this approach. For starters, each piece of art has multiple carbonate deposits growing on it. Depending on which one you examine, you get a different age3. That said, all the dates are consistent with Neanderthals being responsible, so most find this critique uncompelling2, 4.

Aubert and company2 raise a more serious issue. They point out that sometimes carbonate deposits which look like they formed after the art was made are sometimes already there.

A hand stencil from Africa. Although the carbonate deposit looks like it’s formed over the stencil, traces of pigment on the surface prove it was already there when the art was made2.

The way to make sure this isn’t the case is to drill right down to find where the pigment is (or isn’t, if the deposit is actually underneath the art). However, the initial researchers didn’t do this for fear of damaging the artworks2.

Is Neanderthal cave art actually art?

As well as raising doubts about the age of the art, the fact the researchers didn’t drill down to the pigment raises another question: what if the art isn’t actually art?

Natural processes can sometimes colour rocks. To prove this isn’t the case, we need to find the actual paint used. However, since nobody drilled down to find actual pigment, we can’t rule this out2.

Ok, for some of the Neanderthal cave art we can rule out natural causes. It’s unlikely they would produce a perfect handprint shape, for instance.

Maltravieso art. Inset is the overlying carbonate formation which was dated

But even then, how can we be sure these actually count as art. What if a Neanderthal working with pigment – which does have a range of more practical applications – accidentally touched a cave wall? The resulting transfer could produce an unintentional stencil2.

Now, I’m sure you can figure out many tests to see if the art was made deliberately. For instance, the cave art at El Castillo appears to have been made by many people. So many working together is a pretty strong indicator they were making something deliberately5.

This is perhaps the silver lining in all this. None of the problems raised by Aubert et al. are impossible to overcome. A little bit more drilling, a bit deeper analysis, and we can get the final say on whether this is Neanderthal cave art.

In the meantime, take these claims with a pinch of calcium carbonate.

References

  1. Hoffmann, D.L., Standish, C.D., García-Diez, M., Pettitt, P.B., Milton, J.A., Zilhão, J., Alcolea-González, J.J., Cantalejo-Duarte, P., Collado, H., De Balbín, R. and Lorblanchet, M., 2018. U-Th dating of carbonate crusts reveals Neandertal origin of Iberian cave art. Science359(6378), pp.912-915.
  2. Aubert, M., Brumm, A. and Huntley, J., 2018. Early dates for ‘Neanderthal cave art’ may be wrong. Journal of human evolution.
  3. Pearce, D.G. and Bonneau, A., 2018. Trouble on the dating scene. Nature ecology & evolution2(6), p.925.
  4. Hoffmann, D.L., Standish, C.D., Pike, A.W., García-Diez, M., Pettitt, P.B., Angelucci, D.E., Villaverde, V., Zapata, J., Milton, J.A., Alcolea-González, J. and Cantalejo-Duarte, P., 2018. Dates for Neanderthal art and symbolic behaviour are reliable. Nature Ecology & Evolution2(7), p.1044.
  5. d’Errico, F., Bouillot, L.D., García-Diez, M., Martí, A.P., Pimentel, D.G. and Zilhao, J., 2016. The technology of the earliest European cave paintings: El Castillo Cave, Spain. Journal of Archaeological Science70, pp.48-65.

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