Belying their reputation as the dumb cousins of early modern humans, Neanderthals created cave art, an activity regarded as a major cognitive step in the evolution of humankind, scientists reported in a paper describing the first discovery of artwork by this extinct species.
The discovery is “a major contribution to the redefinition of our perception of Neanderthal culture,” said prehistorian William Rendu of the French National Centre for Scientific Research.
In recent years researchers have discovered that Neanderthals buried their dead, adorned themselves with black and red pigments, wore shell and feather jewelry and cared for the elderly and infirm, all evidence of complex thought. But no unambiguously Neanderthal art was ever found.
The new study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, could change that.
Researchers from 11 European institutions reported that deep in Gorham’s Cave in Gibraltar, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, they found carvings that resemble nothing so much as a rococo Twitter hashtag: eight partially crisscrossing lines with three shorter lines on the right and two on the left, incised on a shelf of bedrock jutting out from the wall about 16 inches above the cave floor.
The engraving is covered by undisturbed sediment that contains 294 previously discovered stone tools. They are in a style long known as the signature of Neanderthals, who had reached Europe from Africa some 300,000 years ago.
Standard techniques had dated the tools at 39,000 years old, about when Neanderthals went extinct, meaning the art below it must be older. Modern humans, who painted the famous caves at Lascaux in France and Altimira in Spain, by then had not reached the region where Gorham’s Cave is located. The researchers ruled out the possibility that the engravings were accidental or from cutting meat or animal skins.