The wonderful prehistoric cave paintings found in Europe were not made by humans–not by modern humans, anyway. A new way of determining the age of some of those paintings reveals that they were made by Neanderthals (NOTE: Subscribers can still listen to this show). This is especially eerie when we realize that many of the paintings were made by blowing pigment over the artist’s hand–and that these were not the hands of modern humans.
On the NPR website, Christopher Joyce quotes archeologist Alistair Pike as saying, "What we are saying is that we must entertain the possibility that these paintings were made by Neanderthals," who were our closest relatives, but not our species. Pike says, "Why should it be surprising that Neanderthals produced art?"
Some of the cave paintings in Spain are at least 40,800 years old. At that time, Neanderthals had been in Europe for 200,000 or 300,000 years, but modern humans had just arrived from Africa.
Neanderthals were also using bird feathers as personal ornaments, with a preference for birds with dark or black plumage. This gives us even more evidence that Neanderthals’ thinking ability was similar to our own. In BBC News, Paul Rincon quotes researcher Juan Jose Negro, who found bird skeletons in prehistoric caves, as saying, "The wings make up less than 20% of the weight of the body of those birds. There is no meat in the wings–they were not consuming these animals. The only explanation left is the use of those long feathers."
He quotes museum director Clive Finlayson as saying, "I think this is the tip of the iceberg.. It is showing that Neanderthals simply expressed themselves in media other than cave walls.
"What all this suggests to us is that Neanderthals had the cognitive abilities to think in symbolic terms. The feathers were almost certainly being used for ornamental purposes, and this is a quite unbelievable thing to find."