Reconstruction of Neanderthal child by Christoph P.E. Zollikofer

Headlines in Spanish language newspapers around the world are variants of the same claim: "Paintings could be the first work of art of humanity."

The Daily Mail online provides an English version, for those who want to check it out.

(Just know that when the Daily Mail says "the paintings could revolutionise our view of Neanderthal man, who is often portrayed as being monkey-like" the "monkey-like" is their own special touch. Neanderthals are members of the genus Homo, just like all of you reading this. Not monkeys.)

The Spanish news website provides a version of the common article under the headline, The First Work of Art of Humanity, Made by Neanderthals?

The photograph flashing around the world as a kind of Rorschach test shows red linear painting on a stalactite hanging from the ceiling of the Cueva de Nerja, on the coast of southern Spain, east of Malaga. According to the Spanish investigators, the images are those of seals. That is a pivotal claim, so I invite you to go off and look at some of the images. I'll wait.

Back? OK.

Let's agree that the images are not exceptionally naturalistic. I can see them as seals. But mostly, I see them as ovals, some with internal red details. But that doesn't prevent me from accepting them as graphic visual imagery formed with a degree of intentionality: art, in other words.

Now, how do we know that this is the oldest artwork in the world? There are other claims for this honor; in Africa, Blombos Cave has yielded ochre (a pigment), specifically pieces of ochre with cross-hatching, dating to ca. 70,000 to 80,000 years ago. Geometric patterns, not on the wall, but clearly these need to be taken into account when we talk about intentional execution of graphic visual imagery.

Which is the first reason it matters that the scholars studying the Cueva de Nerja see these shapes as seals: animals. Not just geometric shapes; naturalism.

The second reason it matters if these are seals gets us to the heart of the new report, which is the early dates produced by the project. These dates are given as 43,500 years ago and 42,300 years ago. They were obtained using radiocarbon dating on carbon found within ten centimeters of these newly published images.

Dates that old would be earlier than the known presence of anatomically modern humans in southern Spain; they overlap instead with the presence in the Iberian peninsula of Neanderthals. Hence, as lead scientist, Professor José Luis Sanchidrián of the University of Córdoba is quoted as saying, this "would be an academic bombshell."

But there is a problem. And yes, I am tired of being the spoilsport, the wet blanket. (Which is why I told you about Blombos Cave. You can still be excited about early art.)

The material dated is not from the cave paintings themselves. It is from nearby. But when did it get there? The researchers make the argument that it was from the lighting used by the artists to work in this difficult to reach part of the cave. They note that the need to light the space could have been during the execution of the paintings, or to look at them after they were created. The story emphasizes that this might mean that the paintings are even older than the dated carbon.

But the burning torch that produced this carbon could also have been used long before the paintings were executed. The visitors to this part of the cave could have been followed by others who eventually marked the stalactite with the paintings. You just cannot assume the relationship between carbon over here and paintings over there.

Sanchidrián knows this. He is cited as "insisting" that it is necessary to date "a thin film formed over the images to know their exact date." Contemporary methods in which carbon from the pigment itself is dated, as for example in studies of Chauvet Cave (currently accepted as the earliest figural painting, at 32,000 to 30,500 years ago), require carbon-based pigments, and these reddish lines are likely iron-based pigments. The "thin film" Sanchidrián proposes to date most likely refers to carbon deposited by burning torches, if, as he hypothesizes, the torches were used to view the paintings. [Update: A colleague specializing in the Upper Palaeolithic suggests he means dating the calcite layer (thin flowstone), which "is notoriously inaccurate".]

But Sanchidrián has a second line of argument. He is quoted as saying:

"The carbon [that was dated] is next to the seals, that have no peer in Palaeolithic art, and we know that the Neanderthals ate seals."

So: If you see a seal in these ovals, then the artist had to be Neanderthal.

He is not suggesting that seals disappeared from the coast during the period after anatomically modern humans entered Spain. The underlying assumption here is that seals would not be depicted by people who were not exploiting them for food.

A slightly longer article in El Pais de Andalucia (southern Spain) complicates things further. Citing conservator Antonio Garrido, director of the Instituto de Investigación Cueva de Nerja, this article cautions that the Neanderthal art argument is simply a "plausible hypothesis." Up until now, he says, dating of organic materials in excavations at the cave reached only 24,480 years ago. Garrido says the carbon from near the new paintings dates between 35,000 and 43,500 years ago--a somewhat wider window than generally cited. Garrido noted that while they have excavated 10 meters of sediments, they estimate another seven meters remains to be excavated.

Sanchidrián knows why it would be revolutionary to date the art during Neanderthal times. As he says, until now, the history of Art has asserted that:

"art is consubstantial with ourselves, the sapiens, because we are what we think>"

In other words: Art is part of what makes us human. So if these dates were to hold, another distinction between Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans would fall.

So I for one will be waiting for more direct dating of the images from Cueva de Nerja.

About the Author

Rosemary Joyce

Rosemary Joyce, Ph.D., is a professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley.

You are reading

What Makes Us Human

Family Reunion

The ancestral human family expands, putting a spotlight on treatment of the dead

Aztec Marriage: A Lesson for Chief Justice Roberts

Has "a single social institution" formed the basis for human civilization? No.

Chez Chimp: Why Our Primate Cousins Don't Cook

Chimpanzees "cook" food for researchers. It doesn't mean they want a restaurant.