Determining what is and isn’t art is tough. Determining who did and didn’t make a particular art piece is tougher.
That’s the problem that torments the paleoarchaeologists and paleoanthropologists who study prehistoric paintings, anyway. And though they typically agree about which ancient scrapes, scratches and marks were made by human artists and which were not, they sometimes struggle to attribute those ancient markings to specific human species.
According to a new paper in PLOS ONE, however, researchers have had some recent success in the task of matching archaic art to its makers. Following their analysis of a series of paintings in a cave in central France, these researchers say that the art was the unmistakable work of Neanderthals, making them the oldest “unambiguous” Neanderthal paintings known to science.
Neanderthals: Artistic Flops or Prehistoric Picassos?
Though recent research has revealed all sorts of information about the cognitive capabilities of Neanderthals, including their capacity for teamwork, researchers remain in the dark when it comes to the species’ artistic talents and aesthetic tastes. In fact, they’ve attributed only a small number of artistic creations to Neanderthals, the majority of which have sparked serious debate and discussion.
With that in mind, many paleoarchaeologists and paleoanthropologists have wondered where the oldest unequivocal Neanderthal paintings may be. And according to the researchers behind the PLOS ONE study, the answer sits deep within a French cave, where a series of archaic paintings were produced around 57,000 years ago — well before the arrival of modern humans in the area.
The Making of Ancient Artists
Researchers have worked their way through La Roche-Cotard Cave in central France since the start of the 1900s, searching its interior for signs of ancient humanity. And though an assortment of ancient tools was identified in the cave in the immediate aftermath of its discovery, it wasn’t until around a decade ago that researchers published their first description and analysis of the traces that covered the cave’s walls.
All sorts of markings adorn the cave, including scratches from animal claws and smooth patches from animal fur. Beyond that, the walls are smattered with spots of red ochre paint and striped with what appears to be "finger fluting," or faint carvings created from the scraping of fingers across a soft surface.
Since the first analysis of the markings, researchers have suspected that they were made by humans.
To confirm that hunch, the team behind the PLOS ONE study used 3D photogrammetry, a technique that stitches together several photos of a single artifact, to create models of the markings. Using those models to compare the markings to other human-made marks from ancient as well as modern times, the team concluded that the traces were deliberately made by humans, according to a press release about the research.
By which humans, specifically? To answer this question, the team turned to optically stimulated luminescence dating, a technique for determining when specific deposits of sediment were first deposited. Using this technique on samples collected in and around the cave, the researchers ultimately determined that the cave had been fully sealed by falling sediment around 12,000 years before modern humans entered France.
According to the researchers, the dating all but proves that the art was Neanderthal-made. And so, too, are the tools from the cave, which were made using the Mousterian toolmaking techniques that the European Neanderthals shared amongst themselves.
The Trouble with Ancient Art
Most prehistoric paintings that have been attributed to Neanderthals haven’t offered such strong evidence of their origins. In 2018, for instance, researchers reported that they’d identified cave paintings in three separate sites in Iberia. Using uranium-thorium dating, they dated the paintings to 65,000 years ago and concluded that they were the work of Neanderthals, having been crafted when the species were the only humans in the area.
In 2020, however, a rebuttal article was published, stating that there was “still no convincing archaeological evidence” that the Neanderthals created the Iberian art. According to the authors of the rebuttal, the dating technique that had been used for the 2018 findings had been flawed, resulting in the possible overestimation of the arts’ age.
To these authors, it wasn’t unreasonable to think that the Iberian paintings had been made much later, once modern humans arrived in the area. “They contradict more than one hundred years of research observations,” the authors wrote of the 2018 findings, and “abandon that whole body of archaeological knowledge and reasoning.”
However, according to the authors of the PLOS ONE study, the evidence of Neanderthal art in the Roche-Cotard Cave is solid. “The graphic productions identified on the walls of La Roche-Cotard demonstrate a deliberate creative process,” they write in the study, and “are unambiguous examples of Neanderthal abstract design.”
Though the motivations and meanings for this artistry remain mysterious, the researchers say that their findings suggest that the behavior of the Neanderthals was much more complicated than previously thought, showing a similar complexity as the behavior of modern humans at the same time period.
“The traces preserved in the cave of La Roche-Cotard make a new and very important contribution to our knowledge of Neanderthal behaviour,” the researchers conclude in their study. “In terms of culture, we now have a better understanding of the plurality of Neanderthal activities, attesting to elaborate and organized social behaviours that show no obvious differences from those of their contemporaries, anatomically modern humans.”