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Neanderthals and the origins of art

18th June 2012

Neanderthals get a hard time. The noun is used as an adjective in a derisory way when chosen to belittle and demean a man, to argue that he is lacking in sophistication, elegance and grace.

To be abrupt, such a man is viewed as being uncivilised. However right such an assertion might be of an individual (i.e. they are uncouth), it nevertheless reduces, unfairly and unknowingly so – hidden prejudice – an entire species to nothingness.

Changes in academic understanding might be changing, but popular opinion might take some time, say around the few hundred generations it took humans to "make history" as the author Michael Cook put it in his engaging book A Brief History of the Human Race.

However, with the realisation that cave art unearthed in Spain is some of the oldest ever found, Neanderthals are fast shaking off the shackles of discrimination that have hung around them for too many years to count.

Out of place, in the everyday setting of 21st century hustle and bustle, a rough shaped disc and hand stencils that remind us all of art classes back at school are thought to not have been produced by man's earliest modern ancestors, but by Neanderthals.

The circular dot in El Castillo cave in Northern Spain, arguably a prototype of art disciples like suprematism, minimalism and colour field, is being tested by researchers who have dated it back by at least 40,800 years, which makes it Europe's oldest known cave art.

As for the hand stencils, which were made by blowing paint over hands pressed to a wall, these works of art are thought to date back as far as 37,300 years, signalling another rewrite of history and further discussion into the creative and mental abilities of Neanderthals.

"Our results show that either modern humans arrived with painting already part of their cultural activity or it developed very shortly after, perhaps in response to competition with Neanderthals – or perhaps the art is Neanderthal art," commented Dr Alastair Pike of the University of Bristol, lead researcher for the groundbreaking report, which is published in the journal Science.

"We see evidence for earlier human symbolism in the form of perforated beads, engraved egg shells and pigments in Africa 70-100,000 years ago, but it appears that the earliest cave paintings are in Europe."

Dr Pike said that one argument for the development of pictorial expression was due to increased competition for resources, which triggered cultural innovation from modern humans to survive.

This line of thinking has authority as the earliest creation of art is thought to signify the spark of cognitive and symbolic behaviour that resulted in the development of language, from which there was an explosion of intellectual development.

"Alternatively, cave painting started before the arrival of modern humans, and was done by Neanderthals," Dr Pike adds. "That would be a fantastic find as it would mean the hand stencils on the walls of the caves are outlines of Neanderthals' hands, but we will need to date more examples to see if this is the case."

As the Guardian discussed, symbolic culture among Neanderthals seems transparent enough, with excavations in France revealing 50,000-year-old evidence that this species painted their bodies – make up – and constructed jewellery for decoration.

That Neanderthals felt an urge to paint, to do more than just survive, hunt and procreate, biological impulses they responded to as one might alleviate an itch with a scratch, hints at something deeper, more meaningful occurring in this species. In his famous essay Why I Write, George Orwell tried to explain what compelled him to put pen to paper, seeing as it didn't matter in the grand scale of life and death.

"One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand," he illuminated. "For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention."

Compulsion then, but now not, it appears, solely the preserve of humans, the origins of art are mixed into the unknown absence of prehistory, great artists in the shape of Neanderthals, before his time or behind to adapt a phrase from the philosopher George Edward Moore.

"Until now our understanding of the age of cave art was sketchy at best; now we have firmly extended the earliest age of European cave art back by several thousand years, to the time of the last Neanderthals and earliest Homo sapiens," stated cave art specialist Dr Paul Pettitt of the University of Sheffield.

"These earliest images do not represent animals, and suggest that the earliest art was non-figurative, which may have significant implications for how art evolved."

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