When did humans start making art and were neanderthals artists too?

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When did humans start making art and were neanderthals artists too?

Bison paintings from the Altamira caves

Altamira National Museum and Research Center / CCBY-SA3.0

This is an excerpt from Our Human Story, a newsletter about the archaeological revolution. Sign up and receive it in your inbox for free every month.

When we think of art, we tend to think of the relatively recent past. The famous cave art in Lascoe, France, is often said to be about 17,000 years old. Chauvet, the second French cave, also has a similarly spectacular painting dated about 30,000 years ago, but that date is controversial. Some archaeologists say that paintings are too good to be too old. When you think of our seeds Homo sapiensProbably more than 300,000 years old, our genus Homo The tens of thousands of years that have existed for over two million years are very short. Why did humans start painting later in the day, and why did other hominins like the Neanderthals not do it?

Well, we could actually have made the art much earlier, and other groups like Neanderthals and Denisovans did the same. There are two barriers to demonstrating this. It’s a matter of prejudice and physical evidence of the idea that other Hominini can symbolize themselves.

In early June, I took a few days with vacationers on a new scientist discovery tour focused on prehistoric rock art in a cave in northern Spain. The highlight of the tour was Altamira, where prehistoric European cave art was first discovered. It dates back to 1879, long before Rascoe and Shove were discovered.

How old are European cave paintings?

As part of the preparation, I tried to find out as much as possible about each cave in the itinerary. But I continued to have the same problem. It’s about figuring out how old the artwork is. In Altamira, that’s because paintings last for a long time. One is 36,000 years old and the other is 22,000 years old, but the relics in the cave are 14,000 years old.

But in other cases, the dates for each artwork were different. For example, consider the Hornosdela Peña cave. There are numerous animal sculptures drawn with amazing anatomical accuracy. It was created in two phases, according to the official Spanish tourism website. One dates back at least 18,000 years and the other dates back nearly 15,000 years. However, the 2014 survey lists the dates acquired for artwork, which range from about 10,000 years ago to over 30,000 years ago. Part of the problem is that the cave is obstructed. It was used as a shelter during the Spanish Civil War and was further modified to allow tourists to visit.

Similarly, there are many pictures of horses and bison in the Elpindal Cave, where fish and mammoths are thrown. Again, there is no definitive date. The same Spanish tourism website is 13,000 to 18,000 years old, but in the 2007 book chapter El Pindal is one of several caves in the area where art dates are an issue. It has been identified.

We spoke with Alistair Pike of the University of Southampton, England, who has studied the era of cave painting, to clarify the age of the painting. He told me that only “a very small percentage” of the cave paintings were definitely dating.

There are several reasons for this. Until recently, the main method of dating cave paintings was radiocarbon dating. This is destructive in nature and requires scraping off the sample. Not surprisingly, cave caretakers take time to grant permits. In addition, radiocarbon dating works only when organic materials such as charcoal are present in the art. It is useless for sculptures and those painted only with minerals.

Unfortunately, there is also a bad reason for not doing radiocarbon dating. “People thought that the style of cave paintings would give us an idea of ​​the age of cave paintings,” says Pike. Since the discovery of the first prehistoric art in the late 1800s, there has been a sense that art needs to evolve linearly. The oldest works must be very simple and abstract, and later works will be more technically skilled and creative. Therefore, there is skepticism about Shobet, even though the painting is radiocarbon dating.

This idea was comprehensively revealed in a 2011 study by April Nowell and Genevieve von Petzinger at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada. By asking each cave expert to explain why he believes the artwork is of a particular age, Norwell and von Pezzinger have discovered a huge loop of circular logic. The artwork in the separate caves was supposed to be the same age because they look similar. Therefore, the art in Cave A was thousands of years old, as it looked like the art in Cave B. However, Cave B experts made their own age estimates based on Cave A. ..

“It all went around in a really big circle,” says Pike. “This is one of the greatest works I have ever seen.”

Cave of Altamira and Paleolithic cave paintings in northern Spain

Paleolithic cave paintings in northern Spain

Yvon Furnaud / UNESCO

Were there any Neanderthals artists?

If many of the given ages are fake, then our idea of ​​who made the art is also fake.

A series of hominins lived in Western Europe and may have theoretically created the cave art of the region. Modern humans are the most recent inhabitants and settled permanently in the area about 45,000 years ago when they emerged from Africa. Prior to that, Neanderthals lived in Europe and West Asia for hundreds of thousands of years.And before that, like other humans Homo antecessor I was around.

If all the cave paintings in Western Europe are 30,000 years old, it could only be made by our species. But if a researcher like Pike can get a reliable date, that’s not always true.

In 2012, Pike’s team showed that the red dots on the walls of the El Castillo Cave in northern Spain were at least 40,800 years old. It was old enough to be a border. The Neanderthals were still around, so they could have made a point.

The team did this using uranium-thorium dating. This finds not the era of art itself, but the era of thin minerals that cover it. These layers form as water drips over the walls of the cave, depositing gradually accumulating minerals. Dating techniques tell us when the mineral layer was formed and give the minimum age of art.

In the 2018 follow-up, Pike’s team dated art in three more Spanish caves. The first was La Pasiega on the same hill as El Castillo. The symbol made of red lines turned out to be at least 64,800 years old. The second is Martra Vieso in western Spain, where the hand stencils are at least 66,700 years old and are known as the oldest cave art in the world. Finally, some of the red paint on the stalagmites of the Ardales cave on the south coast of Spain turned out to be at least 65,500 years old.

There was a gasping I heard when I told these dates to vacationers in northern Spain. Although they were a knowledgeable and enthusiastic audience, these consequences and the importance of their transformation did not diminish. If art is really this old, the wisest explanation is that the Neanderthals made it.

Along this line, Pike points to other places, dating back to prehistoric times, with evidence of symbolic behavior by Neandersal, but was previously rejected. The Bourniquel Cave in southern France has a stone circle made from a broken stalagmite 175,000 years ago. The pigmentation of the shells of the Aviones Cave in southern Spain is 115,000 years old. There is evidence that Neanderthal collected ocher, a red pigment often used in cave paintings, at least 200,000 years ago in Maastricht Belvedere, the Netherlands.

Marshall’s first law

Pike’s team has been dating the covid-19 pandemic for the past few years because “archaeologists who don’t want Neanderthals to paint are basically banning sampling.” I had a hard time. But he hopes other groups will get more luck and eventually build a rigorous timeline for cave paintings. He suspects that art production can be traced back to an unknown common ancestor that we shared with the Neanderthals hundreds of thousands of years ago.

Art may be another example of what I called myself Marshall’s First Law in a previous newsletter. Don’t be surprised if something turns out to be older than you think. Recent studies have used artificial intelligence to identify hidden evidence of controlled fires in some parts of Israel for a million years. This was hundreds of thousands of years ago when evidence of fire use became widespread. If you start looking at it properly, I think that paintings and symbolic expressions will become much older.

The fundamental difficulty we face is that art is fragile. The ones in the cave were so stable that they survived, especially because the entrance collapsed and kept people out for thousands of years. But people may have expressed themselves here and there, as seen in the Portuguese Core Valley, which has thousands of open-air sculptures at least 10,000 years ago. It’s been a long time since most of the outdoor art was eroded. “The landscape was full of symbols,” says Pike, “and very few of them survived.”

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