Two new studies published on Thursday suggested that cave paintings and shell beads found in Spain dated 65,000 years ago were likely made by Neanderthals. The research, published in Science and Science Advances, said that these works of art were made before the modern Homo sapiens arrived in Europe, National Geographic reported.

Joao Zilhao, an archaeologist at the University of Barcelona, said that the wall paintings and perforated seashell beads and pigments found at Cueva de los Aviones in southeastern Spain are at least 115,000 years old. The beads are the oldest objects of personal ornamentation known to this day anywhere in the world.

Cultural competence

Zilhao said it predates by 20,000 to 40,000 years anything remotely similar known from Africa. The discovery dashes the barbaric cavemen image of the Neanderthals. They appear to have had a cultural competence shared by modern humans, John Hawks, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said.

When limestone quarry workers at the Neander Valley in Germany found in 1856 bones that initially appeared to belong to a deformed human, scientists then concluded that it belonged to the Homo neanderthalensis species. The association with the species was brawn, not brains.

However, since the 1950s, scientists threw away the brawny stereotypes when they found that the Neanderthals used crafted stone tools, buried their dead with care, and used medicinal plants.

There was interbreeding between modern humans and the Neanderthals, according to genetic evidence. Scientists estimated that about two percent of modern European and Asian DNA traces back to Neanderthals. Before they disappeared about 40,000 years ago, the Neanderthals lived in Europe and Asia, at about the same time that the Homo sapien migrated from Africa into Europe.

Human evolution studies

Wil Roebroeks, from the Leiden University in The Netherlands, said that the discovery of the cave art constitutes a major breakthrough in the field of human evolution studies. The use by the Neanderthals of pigments and piercings to modify shells 115,000 years ago is proof that they were quite capable of inventing the ornaments themselves, Paola Villa of the University of Colorado Museum in Boulder, said, CSMonitor reported.

According to a team of European researchers who concentrated on the painted artwork in three caves in northern, southern, and west central Spain, they removed small bits of rocky crust which formed on the artwork surfaces and analyzed it in a laboratory.

Dirk Hoffman, from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, said that the artwork is rudimentary and symbolic. Some were a collection of lines that appear like a ladder. While others had red dots and disks on rock formations that look like curtains. There was also a stenciled outline of a hand which was made by spewing pigment over a hand held against the wall.

To make that hand stencil, a number of steps were involved, the authors said. First, the pigment was prepared. Since the hand stencils were apparently placed with care instead of randomly, these were meaningful symbols.

Age of shells

In the second study, the researchers tried to find the age of the shells which were colored and punctured in another cave in southeast Spain. Past research dated it to 45,000 to 50,000 years ago, making it too young to rule out a link to Homo sapiens. But the new analysis indicated the shells were around 115,000 years old.

It would then be 20,000 to 40,000 years older than comparable artifacts in Africa or western Asia which are attributed to Homo sapiens. Because the researchers did not know what the shells symbolized, Zilhao said it could indicate membership in a group like a clan.

Since the finding shows that the Neanderthals shared symbolic thinking with Homo sapiens, it suggested that the two human species were indistinguishable when it came to overall mental ability. Because of the identical knack for the art of the two species, the researchers are now asking if the Neanderthals were really a distinct species or an isolated European subgroup of modern humans.

Zilhao concluded that the Neanderthals were cognitively indistinguishable from the Homo sapiens, making the Neanderthal versus sapiens dichotomy invalid. He stressed, "Neanderthals were Homo sapiens too.

Doubts from some experts

But some experts find it difficult to accept the findings. One such expert is Harold Dibble, an archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania. He wondered in the shell color and holes could have been natural occurrences. He sought for another laboratory to confirm the dating in the cave art.

For the findings to be more convincing, Margaret Conkey, an emerita professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said that future work should focus on explicitly connecting the dating and images with the presence of Neanderthals. She asked if a date alone equal a Neanderthal presence. She said researchers must meet the usual archaeological challenge which is to confirm with multiple lines of converging evidence.

[researchpaper 리서치페이퍼=​Vittorio Hernandez 기자]

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