An article published recently in Science sheds new light on paintings found in 11 cave sites in Spain. At 40,800 years old, some of these paintings could be among the oldest anywhere in the world.
But were these paintings done by Neandertals or the modern humans who replaced them? From the headlines you would think it was the Neandertals.
Taken together with other recent publications, summarised in the image of Google search results below, the Spanish results suggest the habit of producing art in various forms went back to the earliest appearance of modern humans in Europe.
This is only about 5,000 or 10,000 years after people also reached Australia. Why then did the media grab the idea that the paintings might have been made by Neandertals, who were replaced by these artistic modern humans in Europe?
Recent improvements in radiocarbon dating have shown modern humans were in southern England more than 41,500 years ago, that people left flutes and figurines in Swabia more than 38,000 years ago, engravings in the Dordogne region about 36,500 years ago, and paintings around 35,000 years ago at Chauvet Cave, west of the Rhone valley.
Taken together there is now no doubt there were distinct types of art in Europe close to 40,000 years old, and generally not associated with Neandertals.
Yet the headlines on at least four continents relating to the new Spanish results asserted that Neandertals could have been responsible for the art.
The big split
Neandertals became distinct from modern humans about 350,000 years ago but died out within a few thousand years (at most) of the arrival of modern humans.
They produced very little (if anything) in the way of art, but modern humans in Europe went on to produce several different forms of art over most of the next 30,000 years. In Australia, art may have arrived with the first people and was certainly being produced by different Aboriginal groups into the 20th century.
The media coverage of the latest Spanish results is all the more surprising given it relies on a throwaway line at the end of the Science paper on the Spanish cave art dating: “it cannot be ruled out that the earliest paintings were symbolic expressions of the Neandertals”, though no evidence is produced.
Remains of the day
Neandertal remains were first discovered in 1829, 30 years before the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, but it was not until five years later that anyone suggested they were a different species from ourselves. The status of Neandertals has been the subject of varying interpretations, like the more recently discovered Homo floresiensis.
Interpretations of fossils and their relationships to us are not easy and, where Neandertals are concerned, they depend more than we would like to admit on attitudes that are often not expressed.
The most famous example is the suggestion in 1957, by the anatomists William Straus and AJ Cave, that a Neandertal wearing modern clothes would look no different from other passengers on the New York Subway. It is difficult to decide whether this is a compliment to Neandertals, or not.
There are some substantial reasons why it’s difficult to get a full picture of Neandertals. A pattern was described in the 19th century that Neandertals made stone tools using flakes that archaeologists called Mousterian, and did not make bone tools, art or ornaments.
Following them, modern humans made stone tools using parallel-sided blades that were rare earlier, and did make bone tools, art and ornaments. Scholars and the general public lined up with the view that people like us replaced people who were not like us.
But as is to be expected, the story is not quite as neat. The earliest paint has been found in South Africa dated to 100,000 years ago, far away from Neandertals and long before modern humans in Europe.
Recent discoveries tend to suggest more overlap between the species in stone and bone tools, art and ornaments. But against this, there have been very few dated fossils and early attempts to provide dates were distorted by the fact that the supposed transition between Neandertals and modern humans occurred at about the period when radiocarbon dating ceases to be useful.
Close scrutiny sometimes shows, as here, that evidence showing modern behaviour among Neandertals is thin, so why did one journalist – according to a colleague of mine who was interviewed about the Spanish cave art – say he “really, really wanted" to write a story that Neandertals created the art? Why did so many news outlets happily rush to this same, somewhat flawed, conclusion?
The reasons lie partly in our ambivalent relations with creatures that are like us but not quite the same. Perhaps the most obvious are dogs, which are like us because they attend assiduously to our blandishments, or bears which can have a similar body plan and proportion, yet are dangerous, so we infantilise them as teddy bears.
And then there are imaginary creatures such as yetis, hobbits, trolls, and gods, invented to remind us where the boundaries of humanity lie.
Perhaps the media’s fascination arises from the fact archaeologists and biological anthropologists are testing which side of that boundary Neandertals lie.