World's Oldest Cave Paintings Show Neanderthals Were Making Art More Than 20,000 Years Before Modern Humans

Panel 78 in La Pasiega. The scalariform (ladder shape) composed of red horizontal and vertical lines dates to older than 64,000 years and was made by Neanderthals. C.D Standish, A.W.G. Pike and D.L. Hoffmann

Modern humans are not the only species to have produced art, according to a new study that has been described as a "major breakthrough" in our understanding of human evolutionary history.

Researchers have identified the world's oldest known cave paintings, revealing that they were created by Neanderthals, not modern humans.

An international team of researchers, led by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and the University of Southampton, dated cave paintings at three sites in Spain to more than 64,000 years ago.

Since the fossil record shows that modern humans only arrived in Europe 20,000 years later, the researchers argue in the paper, published in the journal Science, that these paintings must have been produced by Neanderthals–the only archaic species of humans present on the continent at the time. This is the first evidence that Neanderthals created cave paintings.

Panel 3 in Maltravieso Cave showing 3 hand stencils (center right, center top and top left). One has been dated to at least 66,000 years ago and must have been made by a Neanderthal (color enhanced). H. Collado

Significantly, the artworks suggest that Neanderthals were more sophisticated—and thought more like modern humans—than researchers previously believed. The issue of just how human-like Neanderthals were has long been a topic of heated discussion among experts.

Read more: Our ancient Neanderthal relatives went extinct much later than we thought

"Early views of Neanderthals painted them as brutish and uncultured, being incapable of symbolic behavior, and this view has been very slow to change," Alistair Pike, Professor of Archaeological Science at the University of Southampton, told Newsweek.

Symbolic behavior—or symbolic culture—is the ability to learn and transmit behavioral traditions from one generation to the next through the creation of things that have no practical function, such as art. This ability was widely thought to have been unique to Homo sapiens, according to the researchers, but the new evidence challenges this view.

The team determined the age of the cave paintings using a state-of-the-art technique known as uranium-thorium dating, which can provide much more reliable estimates than traditional carbon dating methods.

Drawing of Panel 78 in La Pasiega by Breuil et al (1913). The red scalariform (ladder) symbol has a minimum age of 64,000 years but it is unclear if the animals and other symbols were painted later. Breuil et al

According to Pike, the cave paintings in question—located at La Pasiega (northeastern Spain), Maltravieso (western Spain) and Ardales (southwestern Spain)—were generally thought to have been produced by modern humans between 14,000 and 27,000 years ago.

But the new findings suggest that these paintings are much older and are, in fact, the world's oldest by some distance.

"The previous oldest-known painting was from El Castillo cave, very close to La Pasiega; that one is more than 41,000 years old," Pike said.

The Neanderthal cave art includes dots, animals and geometric signs made using red ochre or black paint. In addition, the caves also contain hand stencils, prints and engravings. The complexity behind these symbols and the way they were produced suggests that Neanderthals had a symbolic culture, he said.

"We cannot know what the paintings mean, but we do know they are meaningful," said Pike. "They are not accidental but premeditated, with many requiring a light source. They are painted in deliberately chosen places. This is evidence for symbolic behavior. "

Furthermore, Dirk Hoffman, from the Max Planck Institute's Department of Evolution, told Newsweek that the new findings show Neanderthals developed symbolic culture without taking inspiration from modern humans.

He added that, previously, "there was evidence for symbolic Neanderthal artifacts between 44,500 and 36,000 years ago but this could have been a result of contact between Neanderthals and modern humans," he said.

Symbolic artifacts dating back 70,000 years have also been uncovered in Africa, however, these are also associated with modern humans.

Wil Roebroeks, a professor of Paleolithic Archaeology at Leiden University in the Netherlands, who was not involved in the study, told Newsweek that the new paper was a "major breakthrough in the field of human evolution studies."

"A few claims for Neanderthal authorship of some early cave art had been made before, but these lacked solid data. The concept is certainly exciting and surprising (a nice surprise though), possibly even difficult to accept for some."

"Now, with minimum ages of 65,000 years for rock art from three Spanish sites, Neanderthal authorship of some cave art is a fact. They created liquid mixtures of red pigment, took them into caves and applied them to walls, and did so repeatedly, from at least 65,000 years ago, for reasons that will probably always elude us. "