The Art of Neanderthals

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Professor Diego Angelucci with the shells in his Lab at University of Trento

Italy – Artistic objects and artefacts from our past tell us a lot more than we can imagine. They provide us with information on the people who designed and created them. They tell us of the ability of these people to express themselves and to show symbolic behaviour: this is a defining trait of the human species which, according to scientists, only Homo Sapiens possessed, the ancestor of modern humans who prevailed on the ‘less evolved’ Neanderthals.

Now, a study published in Science Advances breaks new ground in history by suggesting that Neanderthals were not as primitive and intellectually inferior as we believed: their cognitive abilities were similar to those of anatomically modern humans well before Homo Sapiens spread in the European continent.

The new study demonstrated that groups of Neanderthals in the Iberian peninsula were able to create objects of symbolic significance 115,000 years ago. The article presents the results of archaeological research carried out in Spain by an international collaboration, including Professor Diego Ercole Angelucci of the Department of Humanities at the University of Trento, who has been digging in Spanish caves for ten years as geoarchaeologist.

The discovery was made using radiometric dating, in particular the uranium-thorium dating technique used by Dirk Hoffmann (Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany), who confirmed that Iberic Neanderthals could create objects of symbolic meaning.

Scientists have long believed that only Homo Sapiens were capable of symbolic thought. This was based on the fact that they established personal ornaments from perforated shells and colouring substances used in Africa 70,000 years ago, and the creation of art and cave art in Europe some 40,000 years ago. The new study instead proves that also Iberian Neanderthals could do this, and long before.

In 2010, an article authored by the same international team of which Professor Diego Angelucci was a part of, presented particularly valuable findings which were important not because of their function, but rather for their symbolic significance for those who had created and used them. There were various artistic objects where pigments were used but had not been precisely dated. Through the technique of uranium-thorium dating, for the first time researchers were able to date these objects more accurately.

This study is also connected to the conviction that Neanderthals did not extinct as shared by researchers from different discipline areas: “Archaeology and anthropology have confirmed what genetics have recently demonstrated: that in our DNA and in our way of thinking still contain traces of the merging of both species, Homo sapiens and Neanderthal. Now we can also be proud of our smart Neanderthal heritage”.