Archive | June, 2012

Neanderthal Art?

15 Jun

Long depicted (inaccurately) as cartoonish cavemen, the biggest questions about Neanderthals focus on their genetic relationship to modern humans and their cultural capacity.  We know they were physically similar to anatomically-modern Homo sapiens.  But to what extent were they like us behaviorally?  To answer this question, we look for signs of what we consider to be “behaviorally-modern” human culture among the Neanderthals; material evidence of things like language, art, belief systems, music, etc.  Unfortunately, evidence for most of these traits is often ambiguous or, at best, inconclusive.

 

A study published today in the journal Science describes how uranium-series disequilibrium dating indicates surprisingly old dates for art in 11 Spanish Paleolithic cave sites, including the famous Altamira cave.  Cave paintings from these sites were previously thought to be the work of modern humans.  Now, the older dates substantiated by U-series methods allow the possibility that some of the art may have been painted by Neanderthals.

 

Science is both a collection of established knowledge and a process by which we continuously add to and refine that knowledge.  Conclusions are always tentative, subject to revision as new data are revealed.  That’s why most scientists, including archaeologists, are careful to qualify their statements about results – rather than making bold proclamations of absolute certainty.  Thus, Joao Zilhao, one of the study’s authors, was unwilling to state that Neanderthals did produce paintings in Spain’s El Castillo cave when interviewed for MSNBC.com’s Cosmic Log.  Instead, Zilhao cautioned, “In probabilistic terms, I would say there is a strong chance that these results imply Neanderthal authorship…it cannot be proven at this time.”

 

We still have much to learn about the artistic capabilities, if any, of Neanderthals.  I’m excited to see what continuing research using this new dating technique reveals in the years ahead.  Those “brutish” cavemen and women of the Paleolithic may continue to surprise us!

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