An international team has found the first major evidence that Neanderthals, a 'sister' species to Homo sapiens that created the world's oldest known cave paintings, may have had a similar artistic sense to that of human beings.
A new study published on Thursday in the journal Science showed that the paintings in three caves in Spain were created more than 64,000 years ago, about 20,000 years before modern humans arrived in Europe.
It means that Ice Age cave art, including pictures of animals, dots and geometric signs, must have been made by Neanderthals, Europe's sole human inhabitants at that time, indicating that Neanderthals could think symbolically, like modern humans.
The team, led by the University of Southampton and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, said the paintings were over 64,000 years old after using a state-of-the-art technique called uranium-thorium dating.
Until now, cave art has been attributed entirely to modern humans, as claims to a possible Neanderthal origin have been hampered by imprecise dating techniques. However, the uranium-thorium dating can provide much more reliable results.
"Our results show that the paintings we dated are, by far, the world's oldest known cave art ... This is an incredibly exciting discovery which suggests Neanderthals were much more sophisticated than popularly believed," said joint lead author Dr. Chris Standish, an archaeologist at the University of Southampton.
Creating the art must have involved such sophisticated behavior as the choosing of a location, planning of light source and mixing of pigments, according to the researchers from Britain, Spain and France who analyzed more than 60 carbonate samples from three cave sites in Spain.
"Soon after the discovery of the first of their fossils in the 19th century, Neanderthals were portrayed as brutish and uncultured, incapable of art and symbolic behavior," said Alistair Pike, co-director of the study and professor of archaeological sciences at the University of Southampton.
"The emergence of symbolic material culture represents a fundamental threshold in the evolution of humankind. It is one of the main pillars of what makes us human," said joint lead author Dirk Hoffmann from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.
"Neanderthals created meaningful symbols in meaningful places," said co-author Paul Pettitt from Durham University. "We have examples in three caves 700 kilometers apart, and evidence that it was a long-lived tradition."
"According to our new data, Neanderthals and modern humans shared symbolic thinking and must have been cognitively indistinguishable," said Joao Zilhao, a team member from the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies.