Who you calling dumb? Neanderthals possibly cave artists: study

Thu Jun 14, 2012 2:55pm EDT
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By Sharon Begley

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Talk about image rehab: once the poster children for nasty, brutish, short, and caveman-dumb, Neanderthals are now being hailed as contenders for the title of prehistory's first Michelangelos.

Scientists using a new dating technique reported Thursday that many of the most famous cave paintings in Spain are thousands of years older than previously thought - ancient enough to have been created not by Homo sapiens like ourselves but by Neanderthals, the species that lived in Europe long before the newcomers arrived from Africa.

"It is very important stuff, and one more piece in the puzzle minimizing the differences between the behavioral/cognitive capabilities and actual behaviors of Neanderthals and modern humans," said anthropologist Erik Trinkaus of Washington University in St. Louis, who has studied Neanderthals for decades and was not involved in the new study.

Figuring out who painted the hand stencils, shapes, and animals in such famous caves as Altamira in Spain could shed light on several enigmas of human evolution.

Cave art is a form of symbolic thinking: the depictions on walls stood for real animals and possibly (in the case of shapes) for something abstract. It is thus an important clue to when this cognitive capacity - which underlies language, abstract thought and other higher brain functions - arose and whether it evolved separately in two parallel human lineages.

"We are interested in knowing when people became more like us," said paleoanthropologist Eric Delson of Lehman College in New York, who lauded the new study as "a very nice piece of work." Cave painting, he said, "is an example of symbolic behavior, which makes us human."


For the new study, published in Science, researchers from eight universities and research institutions in Europe took minute samples - 10 grams, about the size as a grain of rice - from thin layers of calcite that coat paintings on the walls of 11 caves in northwestern Spain. This crust contains trace amounts of radioactive uranium. Measuring how much uranium has decayed into thorium reveals how old the layer is. That, in turn, gives a minimum age of the painting beneath it. In other words, the painting must be older.   Continued...

The Corredor de los Puntos in El Castillo Cave near the village of Puente Viesgo is seen in this handout photo released June 14, 2012. REUTERS/Image courtesy of Pedro Saura/Handout