06/20/12

The Oldest Art: 40,800 Years Ago


Paleolithic paintings in El Castillo cave in Northern Spain date back at least 40,800 years — making them Europe’s oldest known cave art, according to new research published June 14 in Science.

Science Daily photoThat’s the lead to a fascinating story about the origins of art. Cave art seems to have been practiced 10,000 years earlier than previously thought. That age could make the artists either the first modern humans or even Neanderthals. That latter possibility is pretty exciting.

We know from burials found in the Middle East that Neanderthal people practiced ritual burial and made musical instruments. This find suggests that may have been artists, too. An earlier story in Science Daily from 2010 noted that Neanderthals have been found to be much more advanced than previously thought.

When I was growing up, Neanderthals were imagined as heavy, stupid, slow and brutish. Now we know they had art, music and burial rituals that suggest religion, and were a lot more sophisticated than we first imagined. A cave full of bear skulls found in Europe dated from that time, suggests they had animistic worship. Which raises the question: is religion, like language, hardwired in humans?

Dr Pike said: “Evidence for modern humans in Northern Spain dates back to 41,500 years ago, and before them were Neanderthals. Our results show that either modern humans arrived with painting already part of their cultural activity or it developed very shortly after, perhaps in response to competition with Neanderthals — or perhaps the art is Neanderthal art.”

Art is part of what defines us as human. Knowing the Neanderthals made art helps us identify them as human, not just some type of hairless ape, or brutally primitive human as they were seen when I was young. While it’s often debated, I side with the scientists who believe that Neanderthals interacted with early humans, and probably mated with them. Many of us carry some Neanderthal DNA in our genes. Maybe that’s the part of us that creates art and music. Maybe that’s the legacy they left us. It would be interesting to research whether that DNA is present in artists and musicians, .