Skip to main content

Neandertal artists?

Neandertal skeletonsAMNH

Did Neandertals use symbols and create art? This is the subject of one of the biggest, longest, and most contentious debates in the history of archaeology. Today, most researchers would agree that there is not a simple “yes” or “no” answer. But they might not agree on much else—just one more reason why Neandertals, whose genome sequence was announced today, are so intriguing.Clearly identifiable Neandertal bones (like the front skeleton at right) appear no later than 130,000 years ago, often together with relatively sophisticated stone tools. But for about 90,000 years after that, there is little evidence that Neandertals produced anything that might be called art. There is certainly no indication that they ever painted caves, such as the spectacularly decorated Chauvet and Lascaux caves in France or Altamira in Spain, although one never knows what discoveries the future might hold—and one maverick archaeologist, Robert Bednarik (whom we featured last week) argues that Chauvet might have been painted by Neandertals, a decidedly minority view.

On the other hand, some researchers have complained bitterly that many colleagues are too quick to use the apparent absence of evidence for Neandertal symbolism to deny them their full humanity. John Speth, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, expressed this view in the ironic title he gave to a 2004 paper in the journal World Archaeology: “News flash: negative evidence convicts Neandertals of gross mental incompetence.”

Yet researchers do agree that about 40,000 years ago, Neandertals began to produce artistic objects such as beads made from perforated animal teeth, and that they sometimes engraved pieces of bone or stone with designs that some researchers think have symbolic significance. And some archaeologists see possible evidence of symbolic behavior even earlier. Thus, archaeologists Francesco d’Errico of the University of Bordeaux in France and Marie Soressi of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, argue that Neandertals began using pigments for symbolic purposes—such as decorating their bodies—by 60,000 years ago. During recent excavations at the Neandertal site of Pech de l’Azé in southern France, for example, d’Errico and Soressi found more than 500 pieces of manganese dioxide, a pigment also found at early human sites in Africa.

Indeed, the common ancestor of Neandertals and modern humans may have used pigments such as manganese dioxide and ochre in Africa, although whether it was for symbolic purposes is not clear, as discussed in this month’s Origins essay on the birth of art. This common ancestor also made symmetrically shaped tools that might indicate some capacity for abstract thought and symbolism. And if the Neandertals’ ancestor had symbolic capabilities, some researchers say, then it’s reasonable to think that Neandertals did, too.

But here is where the argument breaks out all over again: While some researchers think that Neandertals were making art before modern humans colonized Eurasia from Africa, others insist that they were not capable of artistic innovation but merely imitated their smarter Homo sapien cousins. This debate, which at times has resembled the academic version of trench warfare, has pitted d’Errico and a band of colleagues on one side against University of Cambridge archaeologist Paul Mellars and his allies on the other. Much of the argument focuses on one archaeological site, Arcy-sur-Cure in central France, which was occupied at various times by both Neandertals and modern humans, both of whom seem to have made personal ornaments, although apparently from different materials. Did the Neandertals get there before modern humans and make ornaments all on their own, without any prompting from their supposed cognitive betters? That’s what d’Errico and company think. Were the two species in the vicinity around the same time, and so Neandertals got their artistic inspiration from contact with the moderns? Paul Mellars insists on that alternative scenario. And some other researchers have suggested a third possibility: that the Neandertals did not make the personal ornaments at all, but rather got them in some sort of trade with the moderns. The artistic reputation of Neandertals hangs in the balance.

Neandertals and modern humans at Arcy-sur-Cure.

More about the Neandertals at Arcy-sur-Cure.

About Pech de l’Azé.

Comment on the work of d’Errico and Soressi by University of Wisconsin anthropologist John Hawks