Neanderthal cave art in Spain

Earlier this year, Hoffmann et al (2018) published an article revealing the dates they obtained for cave art from three sites in Spain: La Pasiega, Maltravieso and Ardales. Using uranium-thorium dating on the carbonate crusts that had formed over the art to obtain a minimum age, they concluded that these examples of cave art are older than 64.8 thousand years. Of course, this places the creation of this cave art well before the arrival of anatomically modern humans in Europe, and implies Neanderthals were the makers.

For the actual techniques used, I would refer you to the article by Hoffmann et al (2018) – the reference can be found below. The art includes linear motifs, dots and hand stencils. The authors go on to suggest that while the dots and lines found are questionable in terms of symbolism, the hand stencils are evidence of planned production, and their placement in relation to natural features on the cave wall makes it ‘difficult to see them as anything but meaningful symbols placed in meaningful places’ (Hoffman et al 2018).

Considering the ongoing debate concerning Neanderthal cognition and ability, especially whether they were capable of symbolic activities, it is unsurprising this article drew some criticism. I am not in a position to judge whether the criticism is well-founded or not, as I do not have knowledge of the dating or sampling techniques used. However, over the last few years of reading scholarly articles about Neanderthals and early modern humans, I have found that there is often a double standard in place for evidence of symbolism. It is assumed modern humans were symbolically inclined, and anything reminiscent of art or symbolism is thus accepted. Similar evidence for Neanderthals needs to be argued through and through, until no other possibility seems plausible, to gain widespread acceptance. I am not saying this is always the case, as there are enough scholars who approach any evidence with an open mind, and I am not necessarily arguing for Neanderthal symbolism, but it does seem a pervasive issue. It will be very interesting to see if these old dates become acceptable and verified, and what implications this will have for research into Neanderthal behaviour.

Article source: Hoffmann, D., Standish, C., Garcia-Diez, M., Pettitt, P., Milton, J., Zilhao, J., Alcolea-Gonzalez, J., Cantalejo-Duarte, P., Collado, H., de Balbin, R., Lorblanchet, M., Ramos-Munoz, J., Weniger, G-Ch., and Pike, A. 2018. U-Th dating of carbonate crusts reveals Neandertal origin of Iberian cave art. Science 359(6378), 912-915. DOI: 10.1126/science.aap7778

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