The recent finding in a Spanish cave of a painted “red dot” dating from around 40,800 years ago suggests that our Neanderthal cousins may have beaten our species to claim the prize of “first artist”. Yet, evidence remains scant, and even if this were proven to be the case, we Homo sapiens can certainly lay claim to taking it beyond a “red dot” and making art our very own (and much else too.)
Why do Neanderthals so fascinate Homo sapiens? And why are we so keen to exaggerate their virtues?
It is political correctness gone prehistoric. At every opportunity, people rush to attribute “human” virtues to this extinct human-like species. The latest generosity is to credit them with the first true art.
A recent redating of cave art in Spain has revealed the oldest paintings in Europe. A red dot in the cave El Castillo has now been dated at 40,800 years ago – considerably older than the cave art of Chauvet in France and contemporary with the arrival of the very first “modern humans”, Homo sapiens, in Europe.
This raises two possibilities, point out the researchers. Either the new humans from Africa started painting in caves the moment they entered Europe, or painting was already being done by the Neanderthals who were at that moment the most numerous relatives of modern humans on the European continent. One expert confesses to a “hunch” – which he acknowledges cannot be proven as things stand – that Neanderthals were painters.
That hunch goes against the weight of the existing evidence. Of course that hasn’t stopped it dominating all reports of the story: as far as media impressions go, the Neanderthals were now officially the first artists. Yet nothing of the sort has been proven, and plenty of evidence suggests that the traditional view is still far more likely.
In this view, the precocious development of art in ice age Europe marks out the first appearance of modern human consciousness, the intellectual birth of our species, the hand of Homo sapiens making its mark.
One crucial piece of evidence of where art came from is a piece of red ochre, engraved with abstract lines, that was discovered a decade ago in Blombos cave in South Africa. It is at least 70,000 years old and the oldest unmistakable artwork ever found. It is also a tool to make more art: ochre was great for making red marks on stone. It comes from Africa, where modern humans evolved, and reveals that when Homo sapiens made the move into Europe, our species could already draw on a long legacy of drawing and engraving. In fact, the latest finds at Blombos include a complete painting kit.
In other words, what is so surprising about the idea that Homo sapiens started to apply these skills immediately on discovering the caves of ice age Europe? It has to be more likely, on the face of it, than assuming these early Spanish images are by Neanderthals in the absence of any other solid evidence of paintings by them.
For, moving forward a few thousand years, the paintings of Chauvet and other French caves are certainly by us, Homo sapiens. And they remind us why this first art is so exciting and important: modern humans did not just do dots and handprints but magnificent, realistic portraits of animals. Their art is so superb in quality that it proves the existence of a higher mind, the capacity to create civilisation.
Is it possible that Neanderthals also used pigment to colour walls and also had the mental capacity to invent art? Of course it is, but the evidence at the moment still massively suggests art is a uniquely human achievement, unique, that is, to us – and fundamental to who we are.