Human Journey

Things We Still Don’t Know: Did Neanderthals Make Art? [UPDATED: It Now Looks Like Yes, They Did!]

After several headline-generating genetics stories over the past few years, it’s well known that just about every human family tree with some roots outside of Africa has a few Neanderthals sitting on its branches.

So maybe it’s a bit of familial pride that has many more people accepting the idea that these bulky ancient humans with the short foreheads weren’t slow, hulking brutes, but normal people, pretty much just like us.

But there’s still a major sticking point: if they really were just like us, where’s all their fancy stuff?

A quick glance around you will confirm that modern humans are almost always adorned and surrounded not just by practical things we make, but by decorations designed to elicit emotional responses from ourselves and others. If Neanderthals didn’t make art, how much like us could they really be? And if they did make art, what would that say about them? Or us?

UPDATE: In two new papers published on February 22, 2018 in Science and Science Advances, a team of researchers announced uranium-thorium dates for cave art and artifacts in Spain dating to from 64,000-115,000 years ago––many millennia before direct evidence of modern humans in Europe. It is the most definitive evidence yet that Neanderthals made art and ornaments without influence from modern humans. The images tested include a hand stencil and abstract designs, but no recognizable images made to resemble other items in the world.

Come Together

This August, Neanderthal experts from around the world will gather in Torino, Italy for the first ever NeanderART conference to review the evidence for and against Neanderthals as artists. There is an open call for papers and posters through April 30, 2018. Interested researchers are encouraged to submit proposals by e-mail to: segreteria@cesmap.it.

The evidence in question can be grouped into four broad areas.

Painting of a Neanderthal man adorned with feathers
National Geographic explorer Marco Peresani’s research has shown that Neanderthals intentionally removed large feathers from birds, possibly for use as decoration or adornment. Painting by Mauro Cutrona

Stone Tools: As graceful and precisely made as a Neanderthal hand ax may be, is can still be seen much like a bee hive, bird’s nest, or beaver’s dam: impressive in design and execution, but simply a practical construction, not intended to connect emotionally with an observer. Does tool making indicate artistic sensibilities? Would that apply to earlier tool-making species as well?

Rock Art: Aside from the new evidence from Spain, several caves throughout southern Europe have at one time or another been suspected of having decorations made by Neanderthals. These attributions are based usually on either the date of the art (e.g. there is physical evidence that the art was made before there is physical evidence of modern humans in the area) or on the presences of identifiable Neanderthal artifacts in the same cave from the same time period. Questions that come up here are whether abstract markings count as “art,” and whether modern humans could still be responsible even if evidence of their presence hasn’t yet been found.

Ceremonial Art: Decades ago, evidence of pollen grains in the soil around a Neanderthal skeleton led to the interpretation that the individual had been buried and covered with flowers. This created an image of Neanderthals as ancient hippies conducting blossom-strewn rituals. That may very well have happened at times, but subsequent research has cast the pollen as simply being a natural component of the soil.

Decoration: One of the new papers describes shells in Spain that were perforated and decorated with ochre, and have been dated to 115,000 years ago. In 2011, National Geographic explorer Marco Peresani (a member of the science committee for the NeanderART conference) published a paper from excavations that showed Neanderthals had carefully cut feathers from bird wings. Since there was no clear evidence for doing this for food or other utilitarian use, it appears to be evidence that it was done for some symbolic or ornamental reason. With shells and feathers being common fashion items for humans from Papua New Guinea to Victoria’s Secret, these finds are a strong tick in the column of “Neanderthals more like us than we thought.”

Meet Them in Torino

Organized by the UISPP (International Union of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Sciences) and IFRAO (the International Federation of Rock Art Organisations), the NeanderART conference will take place August 22-26, 2018 at the University of Turin. It will bring together anatomists, excavators, environmental archaeologists, rock art experts, and others for three days of presentations and discussions focused on three main topics:

1. Changes in the environment and human adaptation.
2. Changes in utilitarian and non-utilitarian production in two million years of human history.
3. The dawn of art-like production and behavior.

Follow their conversations and progress on this blog, and if you have any research to contribute, again submit your proposal by e-mail to: segreteria@cesmap.it. (Learn more about submitting proposals.)

Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. In 2018 he became Communications Director at Adventure Scientists, founded by Nat Geo Explorer Gregg Treinish. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of nationalgeographic.com for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley.
  • George Solem

    Isn’t one hypothesis that Neanderthal did in fact make art and other things, but for a long time scientists simply believed it was their human counterparts of the time making these things instead? From my understanding we have found many things that could be attributed to Neanderthals, but because of bias this was never truly considered and anything remotely advanced from that time period was instead attributed to humans.

  • Andrew Howley

    Hi George. That’s absolutely possible and part of the question still to be answered. In general, more reliable and precise dating and archaeology have confirmed that most of the art is in fact associated with modern humans, but there are some sites that could go either way, and the new evidence from Spain clearly points to Neanderthals. Reviewing all the material together is one way to help clarify questions just like this.

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