Neanderthals may not have been the brutish half-wits us modern folk assume they were; they were just misunderstood artists. A 40,000-year-old cave carving found in Gibraltar suggests that these close, extinct relatives of Homo sapiens were more intelligent and creative than previously thought.
A study of the carving in Gorham’s Cave, which was uncovered in 2012 and measures eight square feet, was published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Resembling a Stone Age hashtag incised deeply into stone, the carving is being hailed by researchers as the first known example of Neanderthal art–although some critics, like Jonathan Jones over at the Guardian, are debating whether it really qualifies as art.
The carving predates the earliest human cave paintings, in Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in southern France, by 10,000 years. While these primitive carved lines aren’t comparable to the sophisticated abstract compositions of, say, Mark Rothko or Jackson Pollock, they certainly call for a revision of how we conceive of our cave-dwelling ancestors and their cognitive abilities.
“Creating paintings or carvings in caves is seen as a cognitive step in human development,” said Professor Joaquín Rodríguez-Vidal of the University of Huelva, one of cave’s main researchers, in the Guardian. “This behavior was considered exclusive to modern humans and has been used as an argument to distinguish our direct ancestors from ancient man, including Neanderthals.” The discovery is “a major contribution to the redefinition of our perception of Neanderthal culture,” as prehistorian William Rendu, of the French National Centre for Scientific Research, told the Wall Street Journal. “It is new and even stronger evidence of the Neanderthal capacity for developing complex symbolic thought.”
As to what the eight carved lines mean, we can only guess, but they were clearly made with great effort, either for ritual purposes or to communicate with others, or both, as the researchers point out. Apparently, the roots of art and design go back even further than previously realized.