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Spanish cave art created by Neanderthals, study finds

New research suggests Neanderthals, not modern humans, were the first artists.

(CN) — Our ancient relatives developed a form of cave art that was likely part of a longstanding tradition before the arrival of modern humans, according to a new study published Monday.

Who first conceived of art, or symbolic expression — Neanderthals or humans — remains a matter of debate because “art was supposed to be a hallmark of so-called modern humans, and Neandertals were assumed to have been incapable of doing any,” said João Zilhão, research professor at the University of Barcelona.

“Alongside the realization that early modern humans and Neanderthals interbred extensively, the discovery that Neanderthals were in fact the earliest cave artists effectively bins such outdated preconceptions of the Neanderthals' fundamental separateness/otherness to the realm where they belong — that of preconceptions refuted by scientific investigation," Zilhão said in an interview.

The study published in the journal PNAS, short for Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was conducted by a team of international researchers, including Zilhão, who looked at red pigments from a stalagmitic dome in a cave known as Cueva de Ardales.

The cave, located in southern Spain, is about 5,174 feet long and features two levels called the Lower and the Upper Galleries. It was discovered in 1821 after an earthquake reopened a cave entrance, but it wasn’t until 1918 that the Paleolithic rock art was found. 

Now over 1,000 graphic representations, mostly attributed to the Upper Paleolithic era, have been described. It’s one of three sites that contains some of the oldest known cave art, dating back to more than 65,000 years ago.

The red pigments researchers studied, located in a stalagmitic dome in the cave’s lower gallery, were analyzed and found to have been intentionally applied through splattering and blowing rather than by natural processes.

The source materials used to make the paintings were extracted from yet unknown sources most likely located outside the cave, said Àfrica Pitarch of the University of Barcelona.

Additionally, there is evidence of at least two painting events, with the real number probably being three, or maybe even four events.

“This means that the artistic activity was, for some reason, recurrent and led us to think that we are in front of a sort of rejuvenation process,” Pitarch said in an interview. “Looking for some parallels of rock art restoration in the ethnographical record, we realized that this practice is usually done both to guarantee the visual recognition of discrete representations and to renew the symbolic link between the place and the people who made those paintings.”

“As the panel we studied in Cueva de Ardales does not have such distinct features, we think that the repetition of the behavior was not an intent on restoring the dome to an 'original' condition but rather an intent on reasserting the symbolic meaning of the place,” she added.

Basically, researchers believe the dome itself is the symbol, and the paintings are there to mark the dome, not the other way around.

The Middle Paleolithic hand stencils and geometric signs seen at other Iberian cave sites represent much the same type of symbolic behavior, researchers noted.

It also supports the idea that cave structures like stalagmites played a fundamental role in the symbolic systems of some Neanderthal communities, something that can be interpreted as part of a longstanding tradition.

“All these results reinforce the idea that Upper Paleolithic art is the outcome of a long process, not the result of a sudden revolution,” Pitarch said.

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