MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Tens of thousands of years ago, artists painted images on cave walls. It had been thought those artists were humans. NPR's Christopher Joyce reports on new evidence that our ancient cousins, the Neanderthals, were the artists behind some of the works.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: The paint they used was red ochre from soil mixed with water. The canvases were the walls of three caves in different parts of Spain. They drew a bold, geometric design that looked like part of a ladder. They pressed a hand up against the wall and made a stencil of it by blowing ochre over it. They painted red dots. And apparently they were not modern humans, Homo sapiens. As archaeologist Alistair Pike explains, the artists did this 65,000 years ago. That's about 20,000 years before the first modern humans are thought to have arrived in Spain.
ALISTAIR PIKE: The only species that were around at that time were Neanderthals, and therefore the paintings must have been made by them.
JOYCE: Neanderthal bones were first discovered in Europe in the 19th century. Neanderthals were humanish but were thought to have been brutish and stupid, not budding artists. People knew about some of these paintings before and figured they were done by modern humans. But the technique used to determine their age was sketchy. So these scientists used a different dating technique, and it overturns conventional wisdom.
PIKE: We're over the moon. This has taken us 10 years to get to this point.
JOYCE: This is part of an ongoing rehabilitation of Neanderthal lore. For example, recent genetic evidence indicates that they did breed with modern humans who came over from Africa. But art was something humans did as far back as 80,000 years ago in Africa. Physicist Dirk Hoffmann of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology was among the dating experts on the team. He says this new analysis shows that art evolved independently in both places.
DIRK HOFFMANN: You find exactly the same thing in Spain. The Neanderthals must also have had symbolic behavior.
JOYCE: Hoffmann suggests that making these paintings may well have required planning, organization, perhaps even language. And some of them as, Alastair Pike notes, required hardy determination.
PIKE: They're actually hidden away. So if you want to see them, you walk into the deepest, darkest part of the cave. And you actually have to lie down and then crawl to the cave wall and look up. And they're actually on the ceiling on little overhangs.
JOYCE: The group also found another pile of evidence pointing to Neanderthals - painted shells, some with a hole drilled through them, perhaps to accommodate a string. The shells lay in a seaside cave and date back about 115,000 years, far earlier than the arrival of modern humans in Spain.
The results are published in the journals Science and Science Advances. This may not be the last word on the provenance of this artwork. The dating techniques offer a wide range, not the exact times, and will no doubt undergo a lot more scientific scrutiny. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.
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