Neanderthals were once portrayed as unintelligent, uncultured brutes, but that picture is beginning to change. They are increasingly being viewed now as intelligent, cooperative creatures who performed cultural rituals and traditions and who mourned their dead. A discovery published in PNAS this year indicates they may have even had art. Art is considered to be one of the highest expressions of complex, abstract thought, and for a long time it was believed to be uniquely human (uniquely Homo sapien, that is).
Researchers excavating a cave in Gibraltar found an engraving on the rock wall in undisturbed ground alongside Neanderthal tools. The engraving from Gorham’s cave, which looks suspiciously like a hashtag, was placed prominently on the wall suggesting it may have been a message to visitors or intruders. There is no direct evidence, however, that the design actually means anything, but it seems likely it was intended to be seen. Interestingly, the engraving appears at a junction in the cave, where the cave changes direction by 90 degrees. It’s hard not to speculate that the design might therefore be intended to share some spatial information, a “You are Here”, perhaps. Likewise, it may have signalled that the cave was occupied.
Suspected Neanderthal cave art has been identified before in Spain, jewellery in France and even a bone flute found in Slovenia. However, it has been difficult to conclusively demonstrate that these are the work of Neanderthals, not the modern humans that were also around at the time. What makes this discovery different is that the researchers went to great efforts to make sure this find is indisputably Neanderthal art. They investigated the engraving using mircroscopic and morphometric analysis, and tested a variety of tools and methods on similar rock to determine how the groves were made – their results indicate this design was produced by humans and is extremely unlikely to have been created by accident (e.g. when cutting meat). Proving it was Neanderthals is harder, however the engraving was found in a cave where Mousterian tools have also been discovered. Mousterian tools are typically associated with Neanderthals, and have been found alongside Neanderthal remains elsewhere in Gibraltar. It was discovered below a layer of deposits dated to 39,000 years ago, at time when some scientists claim Neanderthals may have already gone extinct. Perhaps this was one of the last remaining strongholds of the Neanderthal species.
While a great deal of questions remain, it is becoming increasingly clear that there was more to Neanderthals than we once thought.
Want to Know More?
- Rodríguez-Vidala et al (2014) A rock engraving made by Neanderthals in Gibraltar