Science and Tech


Cave Art Shows Neanderthals Might've Thought Like Modern Humans

Cave art in Spain is older than we thought — so old that modern humans couldn't have created it.
Posted at 4:04 PM, Feb 22, 2018

New research shows some of the world's oldest art is even older than we thought — old enough to challenge what we know about the origins of human intelligence.

Some caves in Spain are decorated with red and black images of animals and hand prints, and littered with dyed seashells that might have been worn as jewelry.

Cave art specialists think these early artists made careful decisions about what they painted and where, and even what color the images and shells were. This grasp of symbolism — where images represent things or ideas — is one of the first steps humans took toward the abstract thinking that sets them apart from other animals.

But when researchers measured the precise dates of the artwork, they found both the shells and paintings were older than believed. The cave art, for example, was almost 65,000 years old — about 20,000 years older than any other evidence of modern humans in Europe.

If humans weren't around to make the art, someone else must have done it. And the fossil record shows the only human relatives in the area at that time were Neanderthals.

And if Neanderthals were making complex artistic decisions, it would mean they were much smarter than we thought. They would have shared cognitive abilities we thought only humans had developed.

Researchers say humans and Neanderthals must have inherited their higher thinking from a shared ancestor, which would make symbolic art — and the early stages of human intelligence — older than we expected.

They say to find the true origins of human cognition, we might have to start looking more than half a million years into the past.