Until recently, scientists believed that the Neanderthal was a stocky, less-intelligent version of the modern human. But, new research led by Dirk Hoffmann of the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, challenges former assumptions about our ancient relative’s intelligence and artistic ability.
Using uranium-thorium dating, the researchers determined the age of cave art found all across Spain. In one location, the cave art was determined to be about 65,000 years old. Modern Homo sapiens migrated to Europe 20,000 years later. As a result, the researchers believe Neanderthals were smarter than previously believed.
In three caves located across Spain, the researchers found more than a dozen wall paintings dating at least 65,000 years old. And, at Cueva de los Aviones, a cave located in southeastern Spain, the team found perforated seashell beads and pigments that are believed to be at least 115,000 years old. Their findings were published in Science and Science Advances.
Said study coauthor João Zilhão, a University of Barcelona archaeologist:
“The Aviones finds are the oldest such objects of personal ornamentation known to this day anywhere in the world. They predate by 20 to 40 thousand years anything remotely similar known from the African continent. And they were made by Neanderthals. Do I need to say more?”
Science textbooks and popular culture depict Neanderthals as oafish figures with stockier builds than modern humans. But, the authors of this recent study suggest that Neanderthals were actually the cognitive equals of Homo sapiens. “Neanderthals appear to have had a cultural competence that was shared by modern humans,” said John Hawks, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “They were not dumb brutes, they were recognizably human.”
If the team’s findings hold, paleoanthropologists will be tasked with discerning who created art at later dates. As IFLScience reports, it has long been assumed that the colorful murals found in Europe dating back 40,000 years were created by modern humans. At the time, nobody thought Neanderthals were capable of such artistic output.
“According to our new data Neanderthals and modern humans shared symbolic thinking and must have been cognitively indistinguishable,” said João Zilhão, team member from the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies in Barcelona. “On our search for the origins of language and advanced human cognition we must therefore look much farther back in time, more than half a million years ago, to the common ancestor of Neanderthals and modern humans.”
Time and replicated studies will determine whether or not our ancient relatives were equals in intelligence and artistic ability. As study coauthor Alistair Pike, an archaeologist at the University of Southampton, marveled:
“We’ve only just scratched the tip of the iceberg. We could be doing this all our lives.”