Amazing Places

Did Humans Or Neanderthals Paint These Caves?

Picture yourself in the Paleolithic era. Life is tough. You and your people likely live in very temporary shelters, either migrating with the herds of animals that sustain you, or making camp in more permanent settlements in the open air. Either way, you might eventually find your way into a cool, dark cave where you find something like magic: the walls have been brought to life with running herds of buffalo and layer after layer of open-palmed hands. It's entirely possible that this exact scene played out again and again in caves across Europe. What's more, radiometric dating from 2012 suggests that the original artist may not have been human.

Paleolithic Abstract Expressionism

Called El Castillo, this cave on the northern coast of Spain is the oldest of 11 similar subterranean sites. A series of stark stencils of open hands dominates the scene, standing out against umber-colored line drawings of herd animals. Eeriest of all is the wall of red discs, arranged in a strangely geometric pattern that seems to convey some inscrutable meaning. We'll never know the full purpose and meaning of this art. But the date on these canvas-caves might provide proof that creativity is not a purely human endeavor.

See, to determine how old the art was, the researchers measured the radioactive decay in calcium deposits that had built up over them. In El Castillo, the deposits had been there for 40,800 years, making those paintings the oldest ever discovered by at least four millennia. It also raises the question of if those paintings were made by human hands or neanderthals. Although homo sapiens first showed up in Spain about 40,000 years ago, the calcium deposits being used to date the paintings suggest a minimum age only. The art could have been on the wall long before the calcium began building up. In other words, it's entirely possible that the first humans to arrive in Spain found a land already full of ancient art museums.

Painted In A Cave, With A Box Of Fats

Let's go back to pretending like we're Paleolithic hominids with a creative itch to scratch. Before we start doodling, we've got to invent the crayon. That probably means taking a shmear of animal fat and mixing it up with charcoal powder from the fire, or red ochre clay from the earth, in order to create the first pigments. Furthermore, we've got to show some reverence for this magic-seeming ability to capture life and place it on a wall, and that means saving it for sacred spaces deep within the earth. Or maybe we make those spaces sacred with our artwork—some have suggested that the hard-to-reach sites of most cave paintings indicates that they were most likely visited only occasionally, in the event of a major ritual. On the other hand, maybe it's just that the hard-to-reach paintings were the ones that lasted the longest.

Anyway you slice it, it's clear that the need to create is fundamental to human nature. Before our ancestors invented painting, they expressed themselves by carving beads out of bones and shells. And before that, who knows? Maybe they sang, or drew bawdy cartoons in the dirt. The point is, art is so much a part of being human that our early ancestors were compelled to invent it. And when we doodle mindlessly while talking on the phone, we're actually taking part in a tradition stretching back more than 40,000 years.

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Written By
Reuben Westmaas
July 13, 2017