Neanderthals As Abstract Thinkers?

Cave markings thought to have been carved by Neanderthals suggests they were expressing abstract thought.

Kerry Grens
Sep 3, 2014

IMAGE COURTESY OF CLIVE FINLAYSONGorham’s Cave in Gibraltar is home to what’s being called the “first known example of an abstract pattern.” Researchers reported in PNAS this week (September 2) their discovery of a cluster of hashes and lines thought to have been engraved by Neanderthals about 39,000 years ago.

“Originally, we could not quite believe what we had found and had to convince ourselves it was real,” Gibraltar Museum director Clive Finlayson, who led the study, told National Geographic. “Is it art? Is it a doodle? I don’t know, but it is clearly an abstract design.”

The criss-crossed lines occupy a small patch of cave—just 300 square centimeters (118 inches). The nature of the deep cuts appear deliberate and careful, rather than unintentional. The excavation suggests Neanderthals might have had the capacity for symbolic thought.

“We will never know the meaning the design held for the maker or the Neanderthals who inhabited the cave but the fact that they were marking their territory in this way before modern humans arrived in the region has huge implications for debates about what it is to be human and the origin of art,” Paul Tacon, an expert in rock art at Australia’s Griffith University who was not involved in the study told the Associated Press (AP).

Clive Gamble, an archaeologist at the University of Southampton in the U.K.  cautioned that it’s possible the markings could have come from modern humans. “What is critical, however, is the dating,” Gamble told the AP. “While I want Neanderthals to be painting, carving and engraving, I’m reserving judgment.”