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.

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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Cognitive frameworks, art, and the emergence of “humanity”: a general statement of blog purpose.

This blog is an informal collection of interesting finds, fun graphics, relevant research, and overviews of sub-topics that I will be exploring formally in more detail in my final paper. As such, the following introduction applies to the aims of both. I don’t think I’ll be able to cover all of these themes, nor in such depth, but will see where it goes.

The general purpose and themes behind this blog, however disjointedly-presented, are severalfold:

  • The use of archaeological evidence to define the evolutionary timeline in which “modern human behaviors” emerge; specifically, I will investigate theories surrounding the use of artistic emergence and development as a proxy to estimate the neurological and cognitive changes that would have allowed for this suite of “modern human behaviors” to occur. Fundamental to this suite of behaviors is the ability to think abstractly. Some archaeologists, anatomists, and cognitive scientists in the last decade have begun to study early Homo sapiens’ artistic development through an anatomical/cognitive lens, asserting that the propensity for abstract thinking  (associated with cognitive structural developments such as “mind’s eye” visualization, greater working memory, and spatial intelligence) is the fundamental characteristic that has produced humanity’s distinctive technological development and artistic development over time. In this way, artistic development throughout human history can be very closely tied to lithic development and other innovations that have allowed humans as a species to flourish in an unusually broad range of ecological zones. There is an implication, some authors believe, that art and symbolic thinking are literally an adaptive part of our biology that is as intrinsically tied to human survival and reproduction as any other facet of our physiology. This sort of conclusion approaches the recent “biocultural model” that has been gaining traction within the anthropological community in recent years. The ultimate fascination for these authors lies in our earliest art –for the question that all of them seek to answer is where and how these adaptive cognitive structures and associated behaviors first developed. The closer we get to the answer, the closer we get to our own understanding of what truly differentiates us as Homo sapiens.
  • To discuss how archaeologists are able to define and recognize “modern human behavior.” Namely I will investigate this in an artistic context, evaluating how “art” is defined and the variety of frameworks through which archaeologists address this question. Included in this will be evaluation of Western art tradition’s influence on historical and contemporary interpretations of artifacts, “art” and symbolic objects found in the archaeological record. Typological thinking, for example, and its pitfalls may be seen as one symptom of this tradition.
  • To evaluate continuity or similarity in artistic behaviors, symbols, materials, technique, motif, and more, both synchronically and diachronically, as well as spatially and contextually when possible. These evaluations will be made with both contemporary theories of human migrations and McBrearty’s theoretical framework of gradual (rather than revolutionary) human artistic/technological change in mind.
  • To investigate evidence for the propensity for symbolic behavior in non-Homo sapiens– for example, Homo neanderthalensis and Homo heidelbergensis. Part of this blog will be dedicated to critically evaluating the contentious idea of symbolic and artistic cognitive ability exhibited by other species through a variety of frameworks, including a cognitive framework. Strengths and weaknesses of current theories and evidence will be analyzed.
  • To ask questions. Tracing how we arrived cognitively at the suite of modern human behaviors that allow us to differentiate ourselves from both our pre-“modern” Homo sapiens predecessors and our closest genetic relatives, Homo heidelbergensis and Homo neanderthalensis, is evocative of many questions: for example, how different are we from these other Homo cousins? Are we exaggerating or minimizing our differences? If artistic and symbolic thinking are fundamentally human attributes, why do we see evidence for them in other Homo species? Why are archaeologists so quick to deny the possibility of abstract thinking in other species? What implications does this have for reconstructing the past capabilities and consciousness of other closely related Homo species? How are archaeologists’ a priori convictions about these matters shaping our understanding of reality?
  • To recognize the rather limited and regionally concentrated scope of our data and to recognize the skewed narrative it creates in terms of our conception of the evolution of “modern human behavior.” The nature of anthropology and archaeology’s early development as disciplines means that much of our historical body of archaeological (especially Paleolithic) knowledge has only served to confirm Eurocentric notions of exceptionality, cultural superiority, and artistic precociousness. Why? Namely because Europe is the birthplace of the discipline, and it has been more politically and geographically accessible for excavation than other regions. This was also combined historically with the cultural objective of proving European “racial” and intellectual superiority. The fact is that many other regions of the world are yet unexplored, whether due to political unrest, lower population density, or scholarly disinterest, leaving the artistic developments and technological innovations of their Paleolithic non-Western inhabitants yet unrecorded. The importance of recognizing this limitation has been seen in recent decades of cave excavations at Blombos Cave and Pinnacle Point, South Africa, for example, which have virtually rewritten the history of humanity with unequivocal findings of symbolic and artistic artifacts dated at 100,000 BP which show that modern human behaviors existed in Africa nearly 60,000 years before the long-held “cognitive and artistic revolution” in Aurignacian-period Europe. As more excavations are carried out in Africa and other locations outside of the European continent, more game-changing discoveries will undoubtedly be made.
  • To discuss and critique the dominant (Western) cultural perception of what it means to have attained “personhood” and be fully “human,” and how archaeological evidence has been used socially to answer this question. This not only has implications in the understanding of our own physiological evolution as Homo sapiens, but also lends insight into the cultural lenses through which we have viewed ourselves vs “the Other,” both historically and contemporaneously, and used flawed principles of human evolution to justify colonialism and other differential treatments of non-Western groups. Historical depictions of Neanderthals vs Homo sapiens, for example, are strikingly reminiscent of racialized treatments and stereotyping of subordinated groups in the past. Analysis of the way we interpret the archaeological record and assert our unique humanity can serve self-reflective purposes. How might our cultural biases be informing our interpretations of ancient peoples, human or otherwise, and vice versa, and what will the impact of our findings be today?


I’ll probably come up with more things to think about along the way, but this is a start.

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