Neanderthals – not modern humans – were first artists on Earth, experts claim

Neanderthals painted on cave walls in Spain 65,000 years ago – tens of thousands of years before modern humans arrived, say researchers

More than 65,000 years ago, a Neanderthal reached out and made strokes in red ochre on the wall of a cave, and in doing so, became the first known artist on Earth, scientists claim.

The discovery overturns the widely-held belief that modern humans are the only species to have expressed themselves through works of art.

In caves separated by hundreds of miles, Neanderthals daubed, drew and spat paint on walls producing artworks, the researchers say, tens of thousands of years before modern humans reached the sites.

The finding, described as a “major breakthrough in the field of human evolution” by an expert who was not involved in the research, makes the case for a radical retelling of the human story, in which the behaviour of modern humans differs from the Neanderthals by the narrowest of margins.

Paintings on a section of the La Pasiega cave wall, including a ladder shape composed of red horizontal and vertical lines.
Paintings on a section of the La Pasiega cave wall, including a ladder shape composed of red horizontal and vertical lines. Photograph: P. Saura/PA

Until now, the evidence for Neanderthal art has been tenuous and hotly contested, often because the works were not old enough to rule out modern humans as the real artists. But the latest findings, based on new dates of symbols, hand stencils and geometric shapes found on cave walls across Spain, make the most convincing case yet.

“I think we have the smoking gun,” said Alistair Pike, professor of archaeological sciences at the University of Southampton. “When we got the first date for the art, we were dumbfounded.”

The Neanderthals were already firmly at home in Europe when modern humans left Africa and made their way to the continent about 40,000 years ago. The remnants of Neanderthals, in the form of skeletons, tools and decorative adornments, reach back more than 120,000 years in the region.

55m years ago

First primates evolve.

15m years ago

Hominidae (great apes) split off from the ancestors of the gibbon.

8m years ago

Chimp and human lineages diverge from that of gorillas.

4.4m years ago

Ardipithecus appears: an early "proto-human" with grasping feet.

4m years ago

Australopithecines appeared, with brains about the size of a chimpanzee’s.

2.3m years ago

Homo habilis first appeared in Africa.

1.85m years ago

 First "modern" hand emerges.

1.6m years ago

 Hand axes are a major technological innovation.

800,000 years ago

 Evidence of use of fire and cooking.

700,000 years ago

Modern humans and Neanderthals split.

400,000 years ago

Neanderthals begin to spread across Europe and Asia.

300,000 years ago

Evidence of early Homo sapiens in Morocco.

200,000 years ago

Homo sapiens found in Israel.

60,000 years ago

Modern human migration from Africa that led to modern-day non-African populations.

In a study published in Science on Thursday, an international team led by researchers in the UK and Germany dated calcite crusts that had grown on top of ancient art works in three caves in Spain. Because the crusts formed after the paintings were made, the material gives a minimum age for the underlying art.

Measurements from all three caves revealed that paintings on the walls predated the arrival of modern humans by at least 20,000 years. At La Pasiega cave near Bilbao in the north, a striking ladder-like painting has been dated to more than 64,800 years old. Faint paintings of animals sit between the “rungs”, but these may have been added when Homo sapiens found the caves millennia later.

A drawing of the red ladder symbol from the La Pasiega cave. Dating shows it has a minimum age of 64,000 years but it is unclear if the animals and other symbols were painted later.
A drawing of the red ladder symbol from the La Pasiega cave. Dating shows it has a minimum age of 64,000 years but it is unclear if the animals and other symbols were painted later. Illustration: Breuil et al

In Maltravieso cave in western Spain, a hand shape – thought to have been created by spraying paint from the mouth over a hand pressed to the cave wall – was found to be at least 66,700 years old. At the Ardales cave near Malaga, stalagmites and stalactites that form curtain-like patterns on the walls appear to have been painted red, and have been dated to 65,500 years ago. What the creators sought to express with their efforts is anyone’s guess. “We have no idea what any of it means,” said Dirk Hoffmann at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig.

It is not the only question left unanswered. “It’s fascinating to demonstrate that the Neanderthals were the world’s first artists, and not our own species,” said Paul Pettit, professor of palaeolithic archaeology at Durham University. “The most important question still remains, however. What were Neanderthals doing in the depths of dark and dangerous caves if it wasn’t ritual, and what does that imply?”

In a second paper, published in Science Advances, Hoffman and others show that dyed and decorated seashells found in the Aviones sea cave in southeast Spain were made by Neanderthals 115,000 years ago, pointing to a long artistic tradition.

Historically, works of art and symbolic thinking have been held up as proof of the cognitive superiority of modern humans – examples of the exceptional skills that define our species. Neanderthals, by comparison, have suffered a bad press since the first skeletons were unearthed in the Neander valley near Düsseldorf in the 19th century. While the German biologist Ernst Haeckel failed to convince his fellow scientists to name the species Homo stupidus, Neanderthals were still described as incapable of moral or theistic conceptions, and depicted as knuckle-dragging apemen.

“To my mind this closes the debate on Neanderthals,” said João Zilhão, a researcher on the team at the University of Barcelona. “They are part of our family, they are ancestors, they were not cognitively distinct, or less endowed in terms of smarts. They are just a variant of humankind that as such exists no more.”

Dating at four ancient caves reveals the artistry of the Neanderthals

But some scientists are cautious about the claims. “It is possible that Neanderthals made rock art of some kind, but I don’t believe that this has been adequately demonstrated here,” said Adam Brumm, an archaeologist at Griffith University in Brisbane. He believes the scientists may have dated calcite crusts that were not overlying paint, meaning they provide dates only for the rock canvas, rather than the artwork itself. He also wonders if the curtain-like rock formations at Ardales cave might be naturally pigmented, rather than painted.

Some of the perforated shells found in the Aviones cave and dated to between 115,000 and 120,000 years ago.
Some of the perforated shells found in the Aviones cave and dated to between 115,000 and 120,000 years ago. Photograph: J. Zilhão

Clive Finlayson, director of the Gibraltar Museum, has discovered a rock engraving that was made by Neanderthals, and found evidence they may have adorned themselves with the talons of golden eagles and other birds of prey. He welcomed the work, but said it was impossible to rule out other originators of the Spanish art, such as the mysterious Denisovans or some as yet unknown species. “We have to keep an open mind. Who else was around?” he said.

Others are less sceptical, though. Wil Roebroeks, professor of palaeolithic archaeology at Leiden University in the Netherlands said the work “constitutes a major breakthrough in the field of human evolution studies”.

“The concept of Neanderthal cave art, at least 65,000 years ago, is certainly exciting and surprising, possibly even difficult to accept for some,” Roebroeks added. “I would love to listen in to the conversations this will create in some quarters where Neanderthals are still seen as behaviourally inferior to their modern human contemporaries. Neanderthals made ‘cave art’ – deal with it,” he said.

The team’s next job is to understand whether Neanderthal art was widespread, by dating and studying cave markings in France and other countries. “That might help us get a little closer to what it means,” Pike said. If Neanderthals were the world’s first artists, it raises the question of what they might have achieved had they had not died out. “If you’d given Neanderthals another 40,000 years,” Pike said, “they probably would have got to the moon.”


Ian Sample Science editor

The GuardianTramp

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