The earliest examples of symbolic behaviour in African Homo sapiens populations include the use of mineral pigments and shell beads - presumably for body adornment and expressions of identity.
The date range is significant on more than one level.
We don't know why the Neanderthals painted these images or what they mean, but there's one thing they show clearly: Neanderthals and our ancestors weren't as different as we thought. "The emergence of symbolic material culture represents a fundamental threshold in the evolution of humankind".
All three caves contain red (ochre) or black paintings of groups of animals, dots and geometric signs, as well as hand stencils, hand prints and engravings.
Three hand stencils (center right, center topm and top left). In Ardales, southern Spain, various red painted stalagmite formations date to different episodes of painting, including one between 45,300 and 48,700 years ago, and another before 65,500 years ago.
Measuring the relative levels of the two elements indicates how long it has taken for one to decay into the other.
They analysed calcium carbonate crusts that had developed over the cave paintings, allowing them to date the art without damaging it. Even when when it is - such as when a charcoal-based pigment has been used - it suffers from issues of contamination which can lead to inaccurate dates.
The team dated the paintings to 64,000 years ago - 20,000 years before humans modern humans arrived in Europe. These motifs all therefore predate the arrival of modern humans in Spain and must have been created by Neanderthals. The researchers used U-Th dating to determine the age of the flowstone that was covering and protecting the deposit. While skeletal remains can reveal when our ancestors first became "anatomically modern", it is much harder for scientists to decipher when the human lineage became "behaviourally modern".
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Unfortunately, we have a poor understanding of the origins of cave art, primarily due to difficulties in accurately dating it. Archaeologists typically rely on radiocarbon dating when trying to date events from our past, but this requires the sample to contain organic material.
However, the scientists working on the newly discovered paintings used state-of-the-art uranium-thorium dating to provide more accurate age estimates. The only "people" around in that part of the world at the time were Neanderthals. There has been some evidence that Neanderthals used body ornamentation around 40,000 to 45,000 years ago, but some researchers believed that they learned the idea from humans, a theory which was nearly impossible to disprove. "We see them doing human things".
The shells were found in the Cueva de los Aviones, a sea cave in southeastern Spain.
Paintings found in three caves in Spain were created more than 64,000 years ago, 20,000 years before modern humans arrived in Europe, meaning they must have been made by Neanderthals, the University of Southampton said in a statement. In the Cueva Ardales, where excavations are now being conducted by a German-Spanish team, the presence of Neanderthals has also been proven from analysing occupation layers. "The art is not a one-off accident", he said. It's quite possible that many other similar works of art still exist, but we just haven't found them yet.
"Undoubtedly it is showing that Neanderthals were thinking and behaving just like modern humans", Alistair Pike, co-author of the studies and professor of archaeological sciences at the University of Southampton, wrote in an email. Indeed, at least 50% of Neanderthal DNA is still around today, so they are our ancestors in the truest sense. "This is perhaps where we should be looking", Pike said.
"These papers simply confirm what has been evident in other aspects of the archeological record and their biologies, that there are no evident differences between the Neanderthals and modern humans in terms of basic cognition, symbolic behavior, sociality, or communication", said Erik Trinkaus, a biological anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis who was not involved in the study.
Until now, it was believed that all cave paintings had been produced by modern humans, not least because available methods made it impossible to precisely date them any older than that. An global team of scientists, whose findings are published today in the journal Science, used this method to date very small carbonate deposits that accumulated on top of the cave paintings.