Tag Archives: Cave painting

Sophisticated Neanderthal art now established

The first detailed description and analysis of the amazing cave paintings of Western Europe that have been attributed to anatomically modern humans (AMH) were made in the early 20th century by the Jesuit priest Abbé Henri Breuil. As well as that those of Lascaux and Altamira, which have been dated, many works in Spanish caves have not. Art ascribed to AMH includes figurative work depicting a wide range of Late Pleistocene animals, abstract and perhaps symbolic designs, and ‘signatures’ of individual people in the form of direct prints or stencils of hands. The earliest known graphic work made by modern humans is a 100 ka-old baton of ochre with a zig-zag set of sharp incisions found with ochre-filled shells possibly for body painting at Blombos Cave in South Africa.

Evidence for pre-AMH work in Europe is sparse and widely  judged to be ambiguous; for instance 50 ka-old ochre-stained and pierced shells associated with Neanderthal remains in Spain.  Hints at even earlier origins for art lie in the geometrically etched bivalve shells excavated by Eugene Dubois at the site in Java where he discovered Homo erectus crania in 1891. They have recently been dated at around half a million years old.  Occasionally, radiometric dating of drawings has revealed quite meagre red dots that are slightly older than the widely accepted date of first entry of AMH into Europe (~40-45 ka) and may have been made by Neanderthals. Of course, there are many European cave paintings associated with dates earlier than the extinction of Neanderthals (around 30 ka) that may have been made by them, but which are generally ascribed to AMH by assuming that only our species has the wit to make them.  Even the sophisticated Châtelperronian stone tools and rough ornaments associated with undeniable Neanderthal remains are considered by many paleoanthropologists to show skills copied from AMH.

This AMH-centric view of art depends on two outlooks: simple prejudice that any beings markedly different in appearance from us were intellectually inferior – generally condemned as racist if applied to different groups of living humans; lack of incontrovertible and unambiguous evidence to the contrary. Both are set to be rigorously challenged by the growing use of sophisticated radiometric U-Th dating of the thin films of chemically precipitated calcite (flowstone or speleothem) that often coat the walls of caves and are at least as old as the art that they cover. A German-Spanish-British team has applied the technique to artwork and painted stalactites on the walls of three caves in Spain known to have been occupied by hominins over the last 100 ka (Hoffmann, D.L and 13 others 2018. U-Th dating of carbonate crusts reveals Neandertal origin of Iberian cave art. Science, v. 359, p. 912-915; doi: 10.1126/science.aap7778. See also: Appenzeller, T. 2018. Europe’s first artists were Neandertals. Science, v. 359, p.852-853; doi: 10.1126/science.359.6378.852). One cave that was analysed is that at La Pasiega in Cantabria whose art was sketched by Abbé Breuil. The team’s results are dramatic: all the dated samples pre-date 40 Ka, the oldest at 79.66±14.90 ka being from La Pasiega. Precisely dated art includes hand stencils, painted stalactites, geometric patterns and line drawings of animals. Many of the caves’ artworks remain to be dated, including some well-executed animals and strange, possibly symbolic designs.

Symbolic Neanderthal art in La Pasiega cave, Spain – left: recent photograph; right: sketch produced Abbé Breuil in 1913. The red, ladder-like symbol has a minimum age of 64 ka but it is unclear if the animals and other symbols were painted later. (credit: Hoffmann et al. 2018, Supplementary Data Figure S4)

The implications of this work are far-reaching. Handprints and stencils are common throughout the archives of European cave art and seem generally to be the oldest at each site. The dating method is yet to applied to the bulk of cave art, much of which is encased in speleothem, so it is quite possible that ‘dual authorship’ may be discovered in some caves. It now seems clear that Neanderthals invented permanent art independently of AMH, and since art is a form of communication that has implications for the ability to speak as well as to think ‘outside-the-box’. The 177 ka corral-like enclosures made of stalactites and associated hearths deep within Bruniquel Cave seem more likely to have ritual significance, far from the light of day, for the Neanderthals that made them. The finds throw doubt on the implausibility of Neanderthal invention of so-called ‘transitional’ technologies, such as the Châtelperronian. Finally, fully modern humans in Africa and Neanderthals in Europe were doing much the same things over roughly the same time period; genetically and physically they parted company about 450 to 400 ka ago; both were capable of artistic symbolism and fulfilled that potential. That implies that their common ancestor may have passed on the proclivity, as might their predecessor H. erectus who created the etched mollusc shells of Trinil half a million years ago.

More on Neanderthals, Denisovans and AMH genetic relatedness

Editorial from the Guardian Newspaper 26 February 2018.


‘Earliest’ figurative art now spans Eurasia

The first generally recognised piece of artwork is abstract in the extreme: a worked piece of hematite with a complex linear pattern etched into it. It comes from Blombos Cave  in South Africa, together with similarly engraved bone, shell ornaments and advances in stone tool kits.

Image copyright held by author, Chris Henshilw...

Artifacts from Blombos Cave, South Africa (credit: Wikipedia; copyright held by Chris Henshilwood)

Dated at 100 ka, the Blombos culture is regarded by many palaeoanthropologists as the start of the ‘First Human Revolution’. Yet most believe that such a massive cultural shift only properly manifested itself around 40 ka in Europe shortly after its colonisation by anatomically modern humans. It was then that lifelike pictures of animals began to appear on the walls of caves, such as those discovered in Chauvet Cave in France and radiocarbon dated to between 35.5 to 38.8 ka.

Drawing of horses in the Chauvet cave.

Drawing of horses in the Chauvet cave. (credit: Wikipedia)

Such a Eurocentric view is based on the lack of evidence for precedent art of this kind from elsewhere. The adage that 'absence of evidence is not evidence of absence' - attributed to Carl Sagan - recently popped up with sophisticated dating of cave art in the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. The cave-riddled limestones of southern Sulawesi have long been known for artwork on the roofs of caves and in some of their darker recesses, including sketches of local animals, humans and a great many stencils made by blowing a spray of pigment over a hand placed on a rock face. The pictures were thought to be relatively recent.

Painting of a dwarf water buffalo and stencils of human hands from a cave in SW Sulawesi (credit: Maxim Aubert, Griffith University, Australia)

Painting of a dwarf water buffalo and stencils of human hands from a cave in SW Sulawesi (credit: Maxim Aubert, Griffith University, Australia)

A joint Australian-Indonesian  group of Archaeologists used a specialist technique to date them (Aubert, M. and 9 others 2014. Pleistocene cave art from Sulawesi, Indonesia. Nature, v. 514, p. 223-227. See also Roebroeks, W. 2014. Art on the move. Nature (News & Views), v. 514, p. 170-171). Like many paintings in limestone caves, with time they become coated with calcite film deposited from water flowing over the rock surface, known as flowstone or speleothem. It is possible to date the film layers  using the uranium-series method to derive a maximum age for the encased pigment from speleothem beneath it and a minimum age from the layer immediately overlaying it. One of the hand stencils proved to be the oldest found anywhere, with a minimum age of 39.9 ka, while sketches of animals ranged from 35.4 to 35.7 ka. To see more images and view an interactive video about the Sulawesi finds click here.
The discovery by Maxime Auberts and his colleagues has set the cat among the pigeons as regards the origin of visual art. The paintings’ roughly coincident age with the earliest in Europe raises three possibilities: the artistic muse struck simultaneously with people widely separated since their ancestors’ emergence from Africa; somehow the skills were quickly carried a third of the way around the world from one place to the other; the original migrants from Africa took artistic ability of this kind with them to Eurasia, perhaps as early as 125 ka ago.
Three points need to be considered: whether in Europe or eastern Indonesia, cave art is preserved either on the roofs or in the deep recesses of caves, where it is more likely to survive then in more exposed sites; preservation by speleothem enhances longevity and the oldest works are in limestone caves; many more archaeologists have researched caves in Europe than in the far larger areas of Asia and Africa. A view worth considering is that art may have begun outdoors, in a well-lit site on whatever ‘canvas’ presented itself. The artists’ choice of cave walls in Europe and Indonesia may have resulted from the need for shelter from rain and/or cold, whereas much of Africa and Australia poses little need for ‘interior design’. Besides, what if art began on the most easily available canvas of all – human skin! My guess is that the record will widen in space and deepen in time.
See also here