This hand stencil art that’s covered with calcite was found to be over 66,000 years old. It is only one example of probable Neanderthal art in the caves of Spain. ( H. Collado | Max-Planck-Gesselschaft )


Two studies recently published in Science and Science Advances, have suggested that cave paintings and other cultural artefacts were almost certainly made by Neanderthals. This discovery challenges the previously commonly-held belief that art started with Homo Sapiens and it opens the door to new and exciting understandings of the role and development of symbolic expression.

Professor Chris Stringer, researcher at London History Museum, told the BBC that these findings showed that Neanderthals were capable of symbolic expression. This has implications for future research on the brain, evolution and symbolic expression. Professor Pike, a member of the research team, told the Washington Post, “It is almost the essence of being human.”

Photographs of the drawings show strange abstract shapes whose origins and meanings are unclear and they also include the outline of hands. By a new and improved method of dating, those hands were almost certainly Neanderthal. The few outlined sketches of animals are not yet attributable to Neanderthals, as some researchers think these may have been later additions made by humans. Nevertheless, these findings show that they almost certainly did make symbolic representations on cave walls. (Stringer suggests out that the title of first species to engage in symbolic art-making might even go further back than the Neanderthals. Zigzag lines marked on a shell in Indonesia date back half a million years and were probably the work of Homo Erectus…)

I have always found cave paintings incredibly moving as well as beautiful. The confident flow of the lines, the dynamism of the drawings, the interplay between movement and stillness bear witness to the skills of the artists. It is a delight to uncover detail after detail, exquisitely observed and symbolised.  As well as their amazing aesthetic qualities, the power of these paintings is that they offer both a bridge across the millennia between members of our species, and a contemporary mirror about the importance of art. We have evolved a need to make art and symbolise.

Now a new paradigm has been introduced: Neanderthals, another species, also made art and it is exciting to think about how this will further our understanding of the role of symbolic expression, creativity and evolution. It is also a reminder of the importance of creativity as a profoundly human need, even and perhaps especially in our modern world.