“Neanderthals appear to have had a cultural competence that was shared by modern humans,” John Hawks, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who wasn’t involved with the study, tells National Geographic. “They were not dumb brutes, they were recognizably human.”
The paintings, distributed across three caves in Spain, consist of black and red images of animals, as well as dots, hand stencils, and handprints. Using uranium-thorium dating, the University of Southampton’s Alistair Pike and colleagues found that the paintings were at least 64,000 years old—predating the estimated arrival of Homo sapiens in Europe by around 20,000 years, but millennia after Neanderthals had settled on the continent. “Our dating results show that the cave art at these three sites in Spain is much older than previously thought,” Pike says in a statement. It “must therefore have been created by Neanderthals.”
“This constitutes a major breakthrough in the field of human evolution studies,” Wil Roebroeks, an archaeologist at Leiden University who was not involved in the study, tells The New York Times. “Neanderthal authorship of some cave art is a fact.”
For study coauthor Joao Zilhao of the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies in Barcelona, the findings point to further parallels between modern humans and Neanderthals. The two species “shared symbolic thinking and must have been cognitively indistinguishable,” he says in the statement. “On our search for the origins of language and advanced human cognition we must therefore look much farther back in time, more than half a million years ago, to the common ancestor of Neanderthals and modern humans.”
Correction (February 27): This article’s original wording suggested that Neanderthals were not humans. We have thus changed “humans” to “modern humans” in the headline and main text to remove ambiguity. The Scientist regrets the error.