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Published: Thursday, 6/28/2012

Caveman artists

In modern parlance, calling someone a Neanderthal is the same as saying that person is uncultured, lacking social graces, and probably the embodiment of every bad thing you attribute to the political party you like the least. This slur is based on a common conception about a relative of humans that once competed and intermixed with us, but is believed to have gone extinct 30,000 years ago.

Scientists examining cave drawings in northwest Spain are upending our assumptions about when art began, and asking whether the Neanderthal has been an unrecognized cave-dwelling artiste all this time. After new dating tests, 50 wall decorations from 11 caves in Spain's El Castillo region are believed to be at least 40,800 years old, making them the earliest art found in Europe.

They include red hand stencils created by pigment blown by the artist onto the hand to outline it. They were created shortly after Homo sapiens arrived in Europe. The question is: Who made them?

Were the stencils and other items the work of humans who brought art with them when they migrated to Europe from Africa? Or were they the work of our great rivals, the Neanderthals, making marks in a field we assumed they weren't artistically endowed enough to aspire to?

Some scientists believe the cave art is a reflection of humans competing for resources with Neanderthals. This theory holds that art, which would have been considered a form of technology in those days, gave humans an evolutionary edge that led to the extinction of our rivals.

That would fit the conventional narrative. It also strokes our ego as a species. Still, the Neanderthal may surprise us, especially if we find more art in the region that is even older.

This discovery is exciting because it includes a great mystery. Is the Neanderthal an underrated artist? Is our bias that only humans can make art unreasonable? Are the first artists doomed to remain anonymous?

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