Neanderthals died out about 60,000 years ago–and it may be associated with their poor artistic skills. A new study from UC Davis examines how Neanderthals’ lack of drawing ability, and Homo sapiens’ prodigious artworks, may be linked to the way each group hunted.
Neanderthals tended to hunt with short-range weapons like thrusting spears, which meant they had to get close to their prey. Early humans, on the other hand, used long-range throwing spears. The emeritus psychology professor Richard Coss suggests in a new paper published in the journal Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture that because humans had better hand-eye coordination from hunting, they were better able to draw images of animals from working memory.
Coss postulates that because only the humans who were best at hunting were able to survive the process of natural selection, those who had the largest parietal cortexes–the part of the brain that controls hand-eye coordination and that is vital for both hunting and drawing–were the ones to survive.
“My conjecture is that Neanderthals could mentally visualize previously seen animals from working memory, but they were unable to translate those mental images effectively into the coordinated hand-movement patterns required for drawing,” Coss writes in the paper.
He used photos and film to examine the drawings in the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in southern France, where human artists were working between 28,000 and 32,000 years ago. Besides being linked psychologically with the area of the brain required for hunting, drawing also may have had benefits like helping early humans teach others what areas of an animal are vulnerable and how to coordinate hunting as a group.
“There are enormous social implications in this ability to share mental images with group members,” he writes. That means that hunting wasn’t the only important skill to learn if you were an early human–drawing may have played an important role in helping humans develop as a species.