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New Discoveries: the Earliest Neanderthal Art

By Josie Mills, on 25 May 2018

Interpretations of our collective human history can change in what feels like a blink of an eye with a new fossil, archaeological find, or ancient DNA result. For a researcher in Palaeolithic archaeology and Palaeoanthropology this can be daunting at times as rapidly shifting narratives make research ‘out of date’ quickly. On the other hand, the high turnover of new discoveries is also one of the reasons that studying human evolution is so inspiring. In early 2018 alone finds of a prehistoric human jaw bone and a finger bone, dated to 180 and 60 thousand years old, respectively, have challenged the view that Anatomically Modern Humans migrated from Africa to Eurasia in a single event approximately 60,000 years ago.

But this year hasn’t only been exciting for Homo sapiens and just over a year on from my first ever post on the Research Engager Blog I thought I would write a series of updates on our favourite Hominin species – the Neanderthals!

One of the hand stencils from Maltravieso Cave, the colour has been changed to highlight the image Photograph: Reuters via The Guardia


The Earliest Neanderthal Art

Perhaps the most attention-grabbing Neanderthal news of the year was the publication of new dates for the parietal art found in three caves in Spain: La Pasiega, Maltravieso and Ardales (Hoffman et al. 2018). These dates were established by uranium-series analysis of the flowstone (composed of calcite and other minerals) overlying the images. By dating the age of the flowstone, archaeological scientists established the minimum age for the art, meaning that it must have been made before the flowstone was laid down (in archaeology we sometimes call this establishing the terminus ante quem).

In the case of the Maltravieso hand (which is part of a panel of over 50 other hand stencils), the earliest flowstone deposits were dated to 66,700 years ago, a time when Anatomically Modern Humans were not known to live in Spain. This means that the images were made by Neanderthals, making them amongst the earliest Neanderthal art ever recorded (see also La Pasiega and Ardales) and providing proof that Neanderthals painted on the walls of caves. The significance of these new dates is undoubtable but perhaps the discovery is even more exciting because the images of hands are effectively stencilled (see image below). This suggests that the individual/s who made them placed their hands on the cave wall and surrounded them with pigment, literally leaving their mark.

Hand print on walls (Credit: Extremadura Turismo)

Symbolic behaviour amongst Neanderthal populations remains relatively rare, I have previously written about the debated ‘hashtag’ at Gorham’s Cave, and the incredible underground structures at Bruniquel Cave. The Maltravieso hands are incredibly unique… they are far from the usual material we study, skeletons and discarded stone tools, these hand outlines capture a direct impression of Neanderthals when they were alive.


Hoffmann, D.L., Standish, C.D., García-Diez, M., Pettitt, P.B., Milton, J.A., Zilhão, J., Alcolea-González, J.J., Cantalejo-Duarte, P., Collado, H., De Balbín, R. and Lorblanchet, M., 2018. U-Th dating of carbonate crusts reveals Neandertal origin of Iberian cave art. Science, 359 (6378), pp.912-915.


Additional reading:

This great blog post by Dr Becky Wragg-Sykes delves further into the new dates for the Neanderthal use of pigments published by Hoffmann et al. (2018)


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