Study Confirms Cave Painting Was Made By Neanderthals

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Study Confirms Cave Painting Was Made By Neanderthals

A team of European archaeologists used high-tech testing procedures have confirmed that painted stalagmites found in the Ardales Cave (Cueva de Ardale

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A team of European archaeologists used high-tech testing procedures have confirmed that painted stalagmites found in the Ardales Cave (Cueva de Ardales in Spanish) in Malaga, Spain really were decorated by Neanderthals . Our long-extinct cousins apparently painted these shiny white cave formations with red ochre pigment at least 64,800 years ago, for reasons that remain obscure. This Neanderthal painting is not art in the traditional sense but does demonstrate that our ancient cousins were intentionally modifying cave environments in ways that had meaning to them.

The controversial thesis of the earliest Neanderthal paintings in European caves was first put forward in an article that appeared in the journal Science in 2018. Another team of European scientists had used uranium-thorium dating techniques to show that the painted stalagmites in the Ardales Cave had been modified more than 60,000 years ago (the 64,800 years ago date comes from their work). They applied the same dating techniques to cave art found at two other Spanish caves, and those tests showed that some of the paintings there had been created more than 60,000 years ago as well.

Researchers in the Ardales Cave in Malaga Spain where the Neanderthal painting of a section of stalagmites was discovered and thoroughly analyzed. ( University of Barcelona )

Neanderthal Painting Predates Human Arrival By 20,000 Years

These discoveries were jolting since it claimed that the Neanderthal painting works in these caves were made 20,000 years before modern humans had supposedly arrived on the Iberian Peninsula. This meant that either Homo sapiens must have arrived and settled in Europe much earlier than suspected (there is no evidence to suggest that), or that the painting had been done by Neanderthal artists , who previously weren’t believed to exist.

Rather than credit this work to Neanderthals, which would have contradicted the thesis that modern humans invented cave art, some scientists questioned whether the paint found in the Ardales Cave was actually paint.

They asserted that it wasn’t paint at all, but a type of natural pigmentation created by natural processes inside the cave. It would have presumably dripped or run onto the stalagmites, making it appear as if they had been purposely darkened.

This theory is no longer tenable, thanks to the work of the scientists involved in the new study, the results of which were just published in the journal PNAS. This study has proven conclusively that the red ochre staining on the stalagmites was paint and that it had been applied by hand, using techniques the scientists referred to as splattering and blowing.

This “human” painting of a bison, painted with red ochre pigment, was found in the Altamira Cave of Spain. It was dated to the Upper Paleolithic, around 36,000 years ago. The stalagmite Neanderthal painting in the Ardales Cave is nearly 30,000 years older!!! (Museo de Altamira y D. Rodríguez / CC BY-SA 3.0)

This “human” painting of a bison, painted with red ochre pigment, was found in the Altamira Cave of Spain. It was dated to the Upper Paleolithic, around 36,000 years ago. The stalagmite Neanderthal painting in the Ardales Cave is nearly 30,000 years older!!! (Museo de Altamira y D. Rodríguez / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Nature Didn’t Do It, the Neanderthals Did, and Repeatedly

The goal of the researchers involved in the new study was to put the naturally-occurring pigment theory to the test. To do so, they used sophisticated testing procedures like optical microscopy, scanning electron microscopy, micro-Raman spectroscopy, and X-ray diffraction to study the nature and qualities of the red ochre found covering the Ardales Cave stalagmites.

The purpose of these tests was to compare the chemical profile of the red ochre pigment with reddish iron oxide samples scraped off of the cave walls . Iron oxide flow had been offered as a viable candidate to explain the red staining on the stalagmites.

The results of this high-tech testing were clear and unambiguous. The red ochre pigment’s chemical signature was found to be entirely different than that of the naturally occurring iron oxide. Furthermore, the evidence showed that the red ochre couldn’t have come from inside the cave at all but must have been made from materials harvested elsewhere.

Adding more intrigue, the analysis revealed that the paint on the stalagmites had been applied in multiple layers, which had been splattered or blown onto the stalagmite surfaces at different times in history (approximately 10,000 years apart).

This evidence “supports the hypothesis that the Neanderthals came on several occasions, over several thousand years, to mark the cave with pigments,” University of Bordeaux archaeologist and PNAS paper co-author Francesco d’Errico told the news service AFP.

In their PNAS paper, the researchers acknowledge that the paint splattered over the stalagmites in the Ardales Cave does not represent art as it is normally understood. But they argue that this activity does reveal something important about who the Neanderthals were and how they saw the world.

They identify the painting activity as “the result of graphic behaviors intent on perpetuating the symbolic significance of a space,” and write that the cave formations created by the stalagmites “played a fundamental role in the symbolic systems of some Neanderthal communities.”

In other words, within the context of the cultural and spiritual belief system of the Neanderthal group that occupied the cave more than 60,000 years ago, what they did had meaning and made perfect sense.

Neanderthal painting of deer painted in red ochre pigment from panel number 22, Gallery A (first sanctuary) of the La Pasiega Cave in Spain. At this writing the researchers are still trying to date this painting and it may also be as old as the Ardales Cave stalagmite Neanderthal painting. (Hugo Obermaier / Public domain)

Neanderthal painting of deer painted in red ochre pigment from panel number 22, Gallery A (first sanctuary) of the La Pasiega Cave in Spain. At this writing the researchers are still trying to date this painting and it may also be as old as the Ardales Cave stalagmite Neanderthal painting. (Hugo Obermaier / Public domain )

Did Neanderthal Artists Inspire Modern Humans?

While the verified discovery of Neanderthal painting “artwork” in the Ardales Cave is exciting, it may be just the tip of the iceberg.

As previously noted, the researchers who originally linked the painted stalagmites to the Neanderthals also did the same with paintings found in two other Spanish caves, which they identified as La Pasiega in the municipality of Cantabria and Maltravieso in the community of Extremadura.

In these other caves, pigments were used to create actual images, of a type that would represent what is normally identified as art. In their 2018 Science article, the researchers wrote that Neanderthal cave art found at these two locations consisted of “red and black paintings and includes representations of various animals, linear signs, geometric shapes, hand stencils, and handprints.”

In these caves, further testing will focus on demonstrating that the dating of these Neanderthal paintings to more than 60,000 years ago is accurate. If additional research confirms that it was it would prove that Neanderthals were responsible for the oldest cave art found in Europe.

If the Neanderthals were in fact the first European cave artists, their example may have helped inspire the later efforts of Homo sapiens , who’ve previously been credited with coming up with the idea all on their own.

Top image: The stalagmite section in the Ardales Cave in Malaga, Spain that was painted with red ochre, pigment making it probably the oldest Neanderthal painting ever found in a European cave. Source: University of Barcelona

By Nathan Falde

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