Famous cave paintings in Europe have for a long time marked the human leap into the world of figurative art, a fantastic step for our species. Some of these symbols of our evolutionary achievement have now been cast into doubt, with a new dating technique suggesting these cave paintings existed before humans ever arrived.
Archaeologist Alistair Pike at the University of Bristol came up with the new technique, which involves dating a layer of calcium carbonate that forms over the paintings – obviously the paintings must have come after the naturally occurring mineral layer. His findings show that some of the paintings in Spain go back at least 40,800 years – when modern humans had just arrived in Europe from Africa.
So who then would be responsible for the paintings of hunters and herds, of the paintings around prints of hands, if not humans? Well our close cousin the Neanderthal had been in Europe for about 200,000 to 300,000 years at that time. And there is already evidence showing that Neanderthals already engaged in symbolic behaviour, performing ritual burials and making decorative beads and ornaments. Did they move on to figurative painting?
Pike and another archaeologist involved in the work, Joao Zilhao from the University of Barcelona, don’t find Neanderthal paintings to be surprising at all. Archaeologist Pat Shipman, who has devoted her career to symbolic behaviour, disagrees: “Ok, Neanderthals had been there for 300,000 years and they not doing this? If they are not doing it before, why would they suddenly start doing it at that point?”
Shipman’s argument extends to the fact that humans were actually engaged in creating symbolic artefacts while still in Africa, with symmetrical marks on ostrich eggs and hash marks on stones. She thinks it makes much more sense that the humans moved on to figurative representations as they moved into Europe, instead of the Neanderthals suddenly coming up with the notion.
Pike concedes that it is possible the humans arrived and immediately began painting on the walls. However, since it’s the calcium carbonate layer over the painting that dates back to that time, the paintings themselves could be far older.
“We can’t be 100 per cent certain that they did it,” says Zilhao, who believes it is Neanderthal art. ”I think that there is a strong probability.”
[Via National Public Radio]