Our Artistic Relatives: Did Neanderthals Have the Cognitive Capacity to Produce Parietal Art? The Case of El Castillo Cave…

El Castillo Cave, in Cantabria Spain. (source: heritagedaily.com)

El Castillo Cave, located in Cantabria, Spain, is known as the oldest cave art site in the world. It was discovered in 1903 and has since been found to contain parietal art and sequences spanning the Lower Paleolithic to the Bronze Age.

Hand stencils at El Castillo Cave. (source: static.guim.co.uk)

Lack of organic dating material, including lack of organic pigments, means that carbon-14 dating could not be used in determining its age. Instead it has undergone Uranium series dating via the calcite in minuscule stalactites that have formed over its parietal art. In this case, the oldest dates were found over hand motif stencils and disk-sized red ochre dots– two forms of symbolic expression that appear ubiquitously in the history of human cave art, regardless of geographic location, and which I have discussed in posts here, here, and here. The U-series dating, completed by Pike et al., gives the art a minimum age of almost 41,000 years. [1][2]

This short documentary includes more background information and video footage of El Castillo Cave, among 22 other Spanish Paleolithic cave art sites within or near Cantabria.

Lead archaeologist Alistair Pike believes that more recently-taken samples, which have not yet been analyzed, will prove to be even older– and in that case, it would prove very unlikely the human creation of these paintings. This leaves the other option: that Neanderthals were the artists and had comparative cognitive capabilities and/or grasp of symbolic thinking and behavior. Pike’s suspicion is that this is the case. In another recent study, charcoal found next to six paintings of seals in Nerja caves, Malaga, Spain, has been dated to between 42,300 and 43,500 years old. The paintings themselves will be dated in the next year or so, and if the dates match, they will take the title of oldest known paintings. Like Alistair Pike, José Luis Sanchidrián at the University of Cordoba, Spain believes the paintings are more likely to have been painted by Neanderthals than early modern humans.[5]

Chatelperronian body ornaments made and used by Neanderthals, found in Grotte du Renne Cave, France.

Chatelperronian body ornaments made and used by Neanderthals, found in Grotte du Renne Cave, France.

Likewise, sophisticated Chatelperronian artifacts recovered at the Cave of Grotte du Renne, France in the last 10 years have been found with well-identified Neanderthal remains. Opponents have asserted admixture of contexts and claimed that humans were responsible for the symbolic objects and sophisticated tools– however, recent Carbon-14 dating of the layers by Hublin et al. in 2012 has put this contention to rest and shown the stratigraphy to be intact.[3] These recent findings leave little room to debate the cognitive ability and capability of abstract, symbolic thought that Neanderthals must have possessed in order to produce these items in the first place.

The last holdout of archaeologists against Neanderthal symbolism protest that these “sophisticated” Neanderthal groups must have lifted their ideas from the work of incoming humans. However, even if this were the case, this doesn’t support a lack of Neanderthal capability to produce art and engage in symbolic practice. Clearly, if they were able to replicate sophisticated human “products,” they must have had substantial cognitive capacity and skill in their own right. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have been possible. Were Neanderthals less creative? Perhaps. Were they the apish, stooping, small-brained brutes depicted in history’s early misrepresentations? Clearly not–archaeological evidence throughout the last century has gradually dispelled the myth. The stark differences between dated and modern forensic reconstructions of Neanderthal skulls and bodies are very telling of how attitudes have shifted. However, a curious degree of anti-Neanderthal stubbornness in the literature and still-active vitriol between each theoretical side makes apparent the fact that some bias likely remains.

Neanderthal proponents such as archaeologist João Zilhão cite behaviors proven beyond a doubt to have been performed before human arrival, including burial of the dead, possession and use of ochre and manganese pigments, and sophisticated tool technologies–for example, a specialized birch sap spear construction technique so difficult that even modern experimental archaeologists have trouble replicating it.[4]

The perforated shells from level II of Zilhão's Neanderthal site, Cueva de los Aviones (after cleaning): (1) Acanthocardia tuberculata; (2–3). Glycymeris insubrica (maximum internal diameter of the perforations: 4.2, 9.5, and 6.8 mm, respectively).

The perforated shells from level II of Cueva de los Aviones (after cleaning): (1) Acanthocardia tuberculata; (2–3). Glycymeris insubrica (maximum internal diameter of the perforations: 4.2, 9.5, and 6.8 mm, respectively).

Different views of an ancillary metatarsal of horse with an excavation break from Cueva de los Aviones (Left) and binocular microscope close-ups of its pigment-dotted tip (Center and Right).

Different views of an ancillary metatarsal of horse with an excavation break from Cueva de los Aviones (Left) and binocular microscope close-ups of its pigment-dotted tip (Center and Right).

Pierced, pigment-stained shells from  João Zilhão's 2010 excavation of 2 Neanderthal sites.

Pierced, pigment-stained shells from João Zilhão’s 2010 excavation of 2 Neanderthal sites.

The photos shown above are of artifacts found at two Neanderthal sites excavated by Zilhão in the last five years. They are located in south-east Spain: the Cueva de los Aviones and the Cueva Antón, both in Murcia and dated to 50,000+ years BP.

Zilhao also makes a fair point: “’You don’t need to have shell beads, you don’t need to have artifacts with graphical representation to have behaviour that can be defined archaeologically as symbolic,’ he says. ‘Burying your dead is symbolic behaviour. Making sophisticated chemical compounds in order to haft your stone tools implies a capacity to think in abstract ways, a capacity to plan ahead, that’s fundamentally similar to ours.'”[4]

And so, the battle continues between staunch supporters and deniers of neanderthal cognitive capability. However, if the most recent U-series dates confirm even older ages for El Castillo’s art, this might just be the smoking gun that pro-Neanderthal archaeologists have been waiting for.

Modern interpretation of a Neanderthal man.

Modern interpretation of a Neanderthal man.


1. Pike, A. W. G.; Hoffmann, D. L.; Garcia-Diez, M.; Pettitt, P. B.; Alcolea, J.; De Balbin, R.; Gonzalez-Sainz, C.; de las Heras, C.; Lasheras, J. A.; Montes, R.; Zilhao, J. 14 June 2012. U-Series Dating of Paleolithic Art in 11 Caves in Spain. Science 336 (6087), 1409–1413. doi:10.1126/science.1219957

2. Amos, Jonathan. 2012. Red dot becomes “oldest cave art.” BBC News

3. Hublin, J. et al. 2012. New Radiocarbon Dates from the Grotte du Renne and Saint Césaire support a Neanderthal Origin for the Châtelperronian. PNAS, October 29, 2012.

4. http://www.nature.com/news/neanderthal-culture-old-masters-1.12974#/minds

5. MacErlean, Fergal. 2012. First Neanderthal cave paintings discovered in Spain. New Scientist. Retrieved 10 February 2012.


Paleolithic European cave artists: exploring identities and challenging myths

Hand painting and the appearance of the “hand” motif on rock is a phenomenon seen all over the globe, dating as far back as 32,000 BP (Aurignacian period) at several European sites, 12,000 BP in Borneo, and 9,000 BP in North America.[4]

Hand motifs in North America. (source: bradshawfoundation.com)

Hand motifs in North America. (source: bradshawfoundation.com)

Red ochre hand motifs are abundant in the famous cave site of Chauvet Cave, France. They are found throughout the entirety of the cave system. The works found in this particular cave were painted during the Aurignacian culture, dated to approximately 32,000 years ago. The entirety of the Brunel chamber, for example, is covered in more than 400 ochre-painted palm prints. The Red Panels Gallery’s “Panel of Hand Stencils” is comprised of several red ochre hand stencils as well as two drawings of animals–one horse and one mammoth. The hand stencils sit within the outlines of the animals.[3]

Panel of the Red Dots in Chauvet Cave, France. (Source: dons maps.com)

The Panel of the Red Dots, another “hand-painted” work, is unusually abstract and is perhaps one of the earliest examples of pointillism–that is, the composition of a non-abstract form through the purposeful placement of pigmented dots. In a departure from the more commonly seen wall art composed of mostly-unmodified handprints, this large image in the shape of a bison was created by the artist(s) pressing the circular palmar portion of the hand against the wall, eventually forming an impressionistic animal-shaped piece. The consistency of the dots suggests that the painting was created by one person and was preconceived.

Hand motifs in Europe. (source: bradshawfoundation.com)

Hand motifs in Europe, Borneo, Australia, and South America. (source: bradshawfoundation.com)

Who were the makers of this art, how was it created, and what did it mean?

Archaeologists (demographically skewed toward male participation, historically) have long assumed that the makers of Paleolithic cave art were male, especially with the abundant depictions of animals and hunting scenes. Archaeologists uncovering these scenes over the last century have for the most part released interpretations imbued with the modern western understandings of gender divisions of labor, and imposed modern social meanings upon the artistic clues left by prehistoric peoples. Women appeared not to have a significant role in the creation of art or creation of any sort, for that matter (except for perhaps clothing, cooked food, and offspring…sound familiar?) Most explanations for the art have centered on shamanistic activity or teenage boys.[4] There is, in fact, no empirical justification for the idea of male-dominated cave art– it is likely a perception colored by our own cultural biases and history, in which male artists have played the most prominent artistic and religious roles.

Woman and child cave artists. (Image by Arturo Asencio)

Woman and child cave artists. (Image by Arturo Asencio)

New research by Penn State archaeologist Dean Snow, published in the 78th issue of American Antiquity in 2013, is turning the tables on our assumptions about the genders and identities of Paleolithic cave artists. Snow initially had the idea for studying handprint “signatures” left in caves after learning about hormone-related studies showing sexually dimorphic differences in finger ratios–of ring fingers and index fingers, specifically.

Drawings of average male and female hand morphology. Finger length ratios are often more varied and/or pronounced than those pictured. (Source: Dean Snow)

Drawings of average male and female hand morphology. Finger length ratios are often more varied and/or pronounced than those pictured. (Source: Dean Snow)

Ring finger length has been found to be highly correlated to in-utero testosterone exposure, and therefore a majority of men have a long ring finger relative to other fingers, namely in comparison to index finger length. Women, however, tend to have ring and index fingers of about equal length. Studies has found these ratios to be statistically reliable indicators of sex. Applying these studies to handprints at 8 Paleolithic cave sites, Snow found that a majority of handprints were almost certainly made by women. He was also able to distinguish, via hand morphology, that the smaller handprints were in fact not produced by adolescent boys. [1][2]
This has incredibly interesting implications for our reconstruction of social and gender roles in Paleolithic European groups. It would be interesting to see more investigations of this nature expanded to hand motif art throughout the globe, and well as in an even greater survey of European hand motif art for more evidence and theoretical fine tuning.

A short explanatory video produced by Dean Snow and Penn State University.



1. Snow, Dean. Sexual Dimorphism in European Upper Paleolithic Cave Art. 2013. American Antiquity 78(4), 746–761.

2. http://news.psu.edu/story/291423/2013/10/15/research/women-leave-their-handprints-cave-wall

3. http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/hands/

4. Wikipedia.com/cave_painting

European cave art: Altamira Cave, Spain


Altamira Cave.

Parietal cave art has been the subject of wonder, fascination, and speculation ever since the first discoveries were made in Western Europe in the late 19th century. It has long been a phenomenon exclusively associated with Western European hunter-gatherer groups living from the Aurignacian period until the end of the Last Glacial Maximum. However, some recent finds in Africa, India, Australia and the Ural Mountains have shown that this type of artistic expression was by no means unique to European groups. Regardless of location, however, almost all of these sites link the spread of artistic creation with the presence of modern humans. One contentious exception is the Spanish site of El Castillo, explored in another post.

(More after the jump…)

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