Science Interviews


Tue, 17th Jul 2012

Neanderthal Cave Art - Planet Earth Online

Alistair Pike, University of Bristol

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Chris -   Back in time now almost 50,000 years to the final days of the Neanderthals and the rise of modern man.  Research – published in the journal Science – has revealed the oldest known cave art in Europe, and it might not have been painted by humans.

Richard Hollingham has been to the University of Bristol to talk to the archaeologist who led the project, Alistair Pike.  As they didn’t have a cave handy, Alistair projected the art onto a wall of the lecture theatre so they could get an idea of how it looked...

Alistair -   We're looking at the panel of hands - it's part of a cave called El Castillo cave in Northern Spain, very close to Santander, and this part of the cave maybe 41,000 years ago was decorated by people putting their hands against the cave wall and then blowing or spitting pigment to create these negative hand images.

Richard -   How old are these?

Alistair -   Next to the handprints there are some red dots and one of those red dots is at least 40,800 years ago but because we can see that they were made in the same technique, they don't overlie each other we think actually the handprints were made at the same time.

Richard -   What does that mean then? It sounds an awful long time ago but that has particular significance.

Alistair -   Yes, well first of all it is at least 15,000 years older than we previously thought the art in this cave to be but it dates from around the time when modern humans first arrived in Europe and the Neanderthals begin to disappear, but because we're dating these deposits on top of the art we don't actually know how old the art is, all we know is that it is older than 40,800 and therefore it might have been made by Neanderthals.

Richard -   Would that have been their first?

Stone Age Cave Art - Panel of HandsAlistair -   Absolutely, or certainly paintings - first example of Neanderthal paintings, so you can look at the fingers, the hand prints of Neanderthals if indeed this is the case.  But we do know that Neanderthals maybe 50,000 years were making art-like objects in other parts of Spain, so we find things like shell beads to use for body adornment, we find shells that have traces of pigment in them that look like they might have been used as a sort of cosmetic even.

Richard -   So once again Neanderthals turn out to be a lot brighter, a lot more advanced (and I know archaeologists hate using the word 'advanced') than that we first perhaps thought.

Alistair -   Well if this genuinely is Neanderthal art, and we haven't yet proved it beyond all doubt because conceivably it could have been made by modern humans a matter of a few hundred years after they first arrived in Northern Spain, but if it does turn out to be Neanderthal then it is showing that Neanderthals have the cognitive abilities rather similar to modern humans, so we've narrowed the gap and the difference between them.

Richard -   But even modern humans when they started turning up in Europe, they didn't have a culture of art before that - is that right?

Alistair -   Well that's a very interesting question because in fact in Africa we do find art objects around 70,000 to 100,000 years ago, which include little bits of engraved red ochre minerals. We find beads, bead necklaces and we find engraved ostrich eggshells but the earliest paintings in Africa are only around 25,000 to 27,000 years ago.

Richard -   So a lot more recent than the ones here, for example.

Alistair -   Absolutely, so it looks like the tradition of painting caves started in Europe and that is a really interesting question to ask why should it be that humans should start painting caves in Europe and not in Africa when they have been making art objects in Africa for the previous 50,000 years. We think we've got an idea about why this is and that is, actually, the presence of Neanderthals.  Just after humans arrived in Europe we find the first examples of musical instruments, of figurative sculpture, we may have found the first example of painting and the difference between Africa and Europe at this time was the presence of Neanderthals.  So it might have been that in order to compete for resources with Neanderthals, modern humans had to organise themselves differently, socially, and art may have been one of these innovations that allowed them to create a group identity and therefore compete with Neanderthals.

Richard -   So we look up at this image projected on the wall of the lecture theatre here - you've got these hand prints and this shadowy image of a bison or something and concealed by this calcium deposit over the top.  How on earth do you go about finding out the age of this without damaging it?

Alistair -   Well, the key to actually being able to date these things is that calcium carbonate deposit that you mentioned.  We can use the radioactive decay of uranium which decays to thorium to work out when these things are formed and it is the measurement of the thorium to uranium ratio that tells us how long, how much time has passed since the precipitation of calcium carbonate and since these are formed on top of the paintings we know they must have been older than the dates that we are measuring.

Richard -   So, actually, it is relatively straightforward thanks to the material that's obscuring them?

Alistair -   Absolutely.  Some people might think it is a shame that you can't see all of the art but it's thanks to that layer that we can actually obtain age information about the paintings.

Richard -   Now, we talk of this as pre-history but I suppose this was the first history particularly as people came back, it's a record really of humanity.

Alistair -   Absolutely, and there's some studies that have actually looked at some of these symbols and they find groups of them reoccurring in different caves all over Europe, so in fact we might be looking at a form of language here.

Richard -   So really this is the start of so much.

Alistair -   It's the beginning of the modern period for humans if you like.



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