Neanderthals, our closest extinct human relatives, were long painted as primitive, thuggish brutes that were cognitively inferior to modern humans. But it is becoming increasingly apparent that we may have vastly underestimated the intellectual abilities of our ancient cousins. For example, researchers have gathered evidence that suggests they intentionally buried their dead and occasionally decorated their graves with offerings, cared for their sick, adorned themselves with bird feathers and claws, and consumed a varied diet. Some even believe they may have used plants for medicinal purposes.
Now, to add to this growing body of evidence, researchers have discovered a cave engraving that could be the first known example of Neanderthal rock art. The discovery is important because it suggests that like modern humans, Neanderthals may have had the capacity for abstract expression. The study has been published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The engraving was unearthed in Gorham’s Cave in Gibraltar, southern Europe. The cross-hatched pattern was buried beneath undisturbed sediment that also yielded 39,000-year-old artifacts. The style of these stone tools (Mousterian) strongly suggests that they were made by Neanderthals rather than modern humans. Geochemical analysis of the mineral layer atop the pattern also confirmed that the engraving was created before the sediment was deposited.
In order to find out how the engraving was likely created, the researchers made a series of experimental grooves using different tools and cutting actions. They found that it was probably produced by repeatedly passing a pointed tool or cutting tip over the rock in the same direction. This indicates that the engraving was made intentionally, rather than merely being the result of other activities such as preparing food. Furthermore, archeologist Francesco d’Errico pointed out to BBC News that the rock is very hard and therefore a lot of effort would have been required to produce engravings. He estimates that it would have taken at least an hour to create the pattern.
We will probably never know the meaning behind the pattern, but it has been speculated that it may have served as a marking to indicate that the cave was occupied. It is also possible that it could have served a ritual purpose.
While it is generally agreed that the engraving is indicative of abstract thought, whether or not it was truly made by Neanderthals is contentious. This is because the dating was indirect as the sediment was examined rather than the rock itself. Furthermore, we know that modern humans first arrived in Europe several thousand years before the Neanderthals disappeared.
Clive Gamble, an archeologist at the University of Southampton, believes that Neanderthals would have been more than capable of creating rock engravings, but is cautious of the dating. “While I want Neanderthals to be painting, carving and engraving, I’m reserving judgment,” he told abc News.
[Via abc News, BBC News and PNAS]
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