The earliest artistic neanderthals?

ResearchBlogging.orgModern humans are almost defined by their behaviours, making the development of modern behaviour a fundamental turning point in the origin of us. It’s when we stopped being hominins and started being humans.

Actually, that’s a lie: we’re technically still hominins, that’s just a pithy – if factually vacuous – statement to convey the importance of tracking the development of modern behaviour.

Of course, tracking such a development is made frustratingly difficult by the fact behaviour, particularly the complex cognitive behaviour that defines modern people, doesn’t preserve especially well. This makes it rather difficult for archaeologists to study.

Note the absence of tools for detecting the thoughts of long dead people

As such, we have to find behaviours to track that leave behind fairly definite traces in the archaeological record. Religion is nice, being a complex modern behaviour which can leave behind graves that are easily identifiable. On the other hand, it also incorporates a lot of non-easily preserved behaviour, such as shamans, rituals and such.

Art is much better, since by definition it leaves behind a material record (i.e. the art!). Because of this, the prehistoric artistic record has been studied with great interest and rightly so – it is fascinating. From [potential] engravings to [potential] figurines, the record is littered with dozens of examples of art from before Homo sapiens emerged.

Yet despite being pre-human, this art seems to have been created by people on the human lineage, raising the possibility that neanderthals were incapable of art.* Although they do make a variety of artistic objects later in prehistory, this appears to happen after they’ve had contact with modern, arty Homo sapiens, raising the possibility they merely copied them.

That sly grin can surely only arise from art theft.

A new analysis of an archaeological excavation from the Netherlands, however, might challenge this idea by showing neanderthals were artistic thousands of years before Homo sapiens had even appeared, let alone met any of their cousins and shared art with them.

It turns out a site at Maastricht-Belvédère contains some samples of red ochre; an iron-based pigment that was used to paint bodies, necklaces and, more famously, cave walls. Crucially, however, this ochre was found at a neanderthal site. Even more crucially this was not a natural formation at the site, being imported from 40km away. And crucialist, this site was dated to between 200-250 kya.

But before everyone gets carried away with holding this up as evidence that neanderthals engaged in modern human behaviour, it must be noted that they can’t actually identify what the ochre was used for – and it was used for a variety of things besides art, such as tanning hides and medicine – so this might not be the earliest example of neanderthal art.

But it's the very antithesis to the brobdingnagian cave art of later periods, suggesting it's art designed to be thought provoking!

But then, even if it isn’t art then there are some interesting implications about neanderthal intelligence here. The source of the red ochre contains artefacts from this site, suggesting there was trade occurring between the two groups. If it was involved in tanning hides then it shows an additional level of technological sophistication. And if it was used as medicine, maybe it’s a sign they had some understanding of cause and effect.

I know neanderthals were intelligent and I shouldn’t be surprised to learn they engaged in such behaviour; but here we’re able to see their trade routes in action, so to speak. Watching the artefacts be exchanged between the two sites certainly makes them seem more “human” than a hundred graphs saying we had the same level of intelligence.

Because that’s a day in the life of a neanderthal right there. We’re able to watch them trek – albeit thousands of years later – 40km, exchange some tools for some ochre and carry it back home. It’s a stunningly clear window into the personal lives of neanderthals.

Needless to say this is an interesting find regardless, although if only we knew what the ochre was for it would be so much more interesting.

Roebroeks, W., Sier, M., Nielsen, T., De Loecker, D., Pares, J., Arps, C., & Mucher, H. (2012). Use of red ochre by early Neandertals Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1112261109


*I don’t believe that to be the case, but am simply taking an extreme – although not invented – view for effect.


2 thoughts on “The earliest artistic neanderthals?

  1. Ethnoarchaeologists tend to think that red ochre use on palaeolithic stone tools was used to “charge” or “blood” them to activate them in some way, but I’ve always been dubious of this claim because it is based entirely on the study of technologically primitive people in the East Indies.

    • Unless a direct link between two groups can be identified, concluding one does something for the same reasons another does is rather sketchy. One might take a general conclusion based upon what living groups do if it is a fairly wide spread practice.

      Rather than “blood” an artefact, it’s just claimed to be symoblic behaviour, for example. However, given that we don’t even have the artefacts ochred here, I’m skeptical even that could be concluded.

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