First Painters May Have Been Neanderthal, Not Human

First Painters May Have Been Neanderthal, Not Human

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European cave paintings are older than previously thought, raising the possibility that Neanderthals rather than Homo sapiens were the earliest painters. That’s not yet certain: The paintings may have been made by humans at an unexpectedly early date, which would itself raise intriguing questions, though none so tantalizing as Neanderthal painters. Researchers measured the ages of 50 paintings in 11 Spanish caves. The art, considered evidence of sophisticated symbolic thinking, has traditionally been attributed to modern humans, who reached Europe about 40,000 years ago.

If H. sapiens made the Spanish paintings, they would have needed to arrive in Europe already possessing a symbolic art tradition, something for which there’s no other evidence. Alternatively, humans may have arrived in Europe and promptly learned to paint, raising the question of why such an important cultural leap occurred so suddenly, in that particular place. Maybe something about the environment, such as competition with Neanderthals, made symbolic thinking important. Or — and this is still just a hypothesis, one that needs to be tested by dating of many more paintings — the artists were not human. Maybe they were Neanderthals.

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