Primitive art: Neanderthals were Europe's first painters

LONDON (Reuters) - The world's oldest known cave paintings were made by Neanderthals, not modern humans, suggesting our extinct cousins were far from being uncultured brutes.

A high-tech analysis of cave art at three Spanish sites, published on Thursday, dates the paintings to at least 64,800 years ago, or 20,000 years before modern humans arrived in Europe from Africa.

That makes the cave art much older than previously thought and provides the strongest evidence yet that Neanderthals had the cognitive capacity to understand symbolic representation, a central pillar of human culture.

"What we've got here is a smoking gun that really overturns the notion that Neanderthals were knuckle-dragging cavemen," said Alistair Pike, professor of archaeological sciences at the University of Southampton, who co-led the study.

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Disocveries linked to Neanderthals throughout history
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Disocveries linked to Neanderthals throughout history
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY PHILIPPE SIUBERSKI Cave specialist Christian Casseyas gives a tour of the Goyet cave, where 96 bones and three teeth from five Neanderthal individuals were found, in Goyet, Belgium, on December 19, 2016. Deep in the caves of Goyet, in present-day Belgium, researchers have found the grisly evidence that the Neanderthals did not just feast on horses or reindeer, but also on each other. / AFP / EMMANUEL DUNAND (Photo credit should read EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)
An undated handout picture shows two molar teeth belonging to a Neanderthal from around 63,400 years ago. The teeth, found in Pinilla del Valle in the Madrid region, have grooves formed by the passage of a pointed object, which confirms the use of a small stick for cleaning the mouth, Paleontology Professor Juan Luis Asuarga told reporters, according to Spanish newspaper El Pais. REUTERS/Madrid regional government/Handout (SPAIN). EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS.
Dr. Omri Barzilai from the Israel Antiquities Authority displays a partial skull retrieved from a cave in northern Israel, in Jerusalem January 29, 2015. A partial skull retrieved from a cave in northern Israel is shedding light on a pivotal juncture in early human history when our species was trekking out of Africa to populate other parts of the world and encountered our close cousins the Neanderthals. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun (JERUSALEM - Tags: SOCIETY)
A girl looks the replica of a neanderthal skull displayed in the new Neanderthal Museum in the northern town of Krapina February 25, 2010. The high-tech, multimedia museum, with exhibitions depicting the evolution from 'Big Bang' to present day, opens on February 27. REUTERS/Nikola Solic (CROATIA - Tags: SOCIETY)
Neanderthal skull from La Chapelle-aux-Saints in Correze, France. Private Collection. c175. (Photo by: Christophel Fine Art/UIG via Getty Images)
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY PHILIPPE SIUBERSKI Helene Rougier, anthropologist at California State University Northridge in the United States, displays some of the 96 bones and three teeth from five Neanderthal individuals which were found in the Belgium Goyet cave at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, in Brussels, on December 21, 2016. Deep in the caves of Goyet, in present-day Belgium, researchers have found the grisly evidence that the Neanderthals did not just feast on horses or reindeer, but also on each other. / AFP / EMMANUEL DUNAND (Photo credit should read EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY PHILIPPE SIUBERSKI Helene Rougier, anthropologist at California State University Northridge in the United States, displays some of the 96 bones and three teeth from five Neanderthal individuals which were found in the Belgium Goyet cave at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, in Brussels, on December 21, 2016. Deep in the caves of Goyet, in present-day Belgium, researchers have found the grisly evidence that the Neanderthals did not just feast on horses or reindeer, but also on each other. / AFP / EMMANUEL DUNAND (Photo credit should read EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY PHILIPPE SIUBERSKI Helene Rougier, anthropologist at California State University Northridge, in the United States, displays some of the 96 bones and three teeth from five Neanderthal individuals which were found in the Belgium Goyet cave at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, in Brussels, on December 21, 2016. Deep in the caves of Goyet, in present-day Belgium, researchers have found the grisly evidence that the Neanderthals did not just feast on horses or reindeer, but also on each other. / AFP / EMMANUEL DUNAND (Photo credit should read EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY PHILIPPE SIUBERSKI Helene Rougier, anthropologist at California State University Northridge, in the United States, displays some of the 96 bones and three teeth from five Neanderthal individuals which were found in the Belgium Goyet cave at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, in Brussels, on December 21, 2016. Deep in the caves of Goyet, in present-day Belgium, researchers have found the grisly evidence that the Neanderthals did not just feast on horses or reindeer, but also on each other. / AFP / EMMANUEL DUNAND (Photo credit should read EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH STORY OF LAJLA VESELICA A photo taken on March 18,2015 in Zagreb shows a white-tailed eagle talon bearing cut marks, polishing facets and abrasions, found along with seven others and an associated phalanx at the Krapina Nenadethals site in present Croatia more than a century ago. An international research, published earlier this month, showed that they were part of a the world's earliest jewellery made some 130,000 years ago and far before appearance of modern humans in Europe. The research gives another important evidence -- contrary to long-held beliefs -- that Neanderthals possessed the capacity for a complex cognitive thinking. AFP PHOTO / STRINGER (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
A paleontologist works at the archaeological prehistoric site of Caune de l'Arago in Tautavel on July 16, 2013. Forty years after the discovery of the Man of Tautavel, homo erectus tautavelensis, the Caune de l'Arago still provides a wealth of clues for researchers, who in 2011 discoverd a baby tooth, suggesting Homo heidelbergensis, probably the ancestor of Homo sapiens in Africa and the Neanderthals in Europe, led a family life in the cave. AFP PHOTO / RAYMOND ROIG (Photo credit should read RAYMOND ROIG/AFP/Getty Images)
The Natural History Museum, London. A Neanderthal human skull. (Photo by In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images)
The exhibit hall includes more than 75 skulls, including two on loan from the Musee de l'Homme in France: The only Neanderthal skeleton in the United States and the original Cro-Magnon skull, discovered in 1868 in a French cave of the same name. The display shown here features an array of skulls culminating with a <i>Homo sapiens</i>.
(GERMANY OUT) Germany - Berlin - : visitor is looking at the head of a Neanderthal man - (Photo by Lambert/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
A man presents a Neanderthal flint head (pointe Levallois), approximatly 35.000 years old, found next to the skeleton of an entire mammoth which was discovered last July, on November 6, 2012 in a Inrap (preventive archaeological research national Institute) archaeological site in Changis-sur-Marne, outside Paris. AFP PHOTO LOIC VENANCE (Photo credit should read LOIC VENANCE/AFP/Getty Images)
(GERMANY OUT) Germany: Mettmann: Pupils in the exhibition 'STONE AGE - MASSACRE. SCENE OF THE CRIME TALHEIM' in the museum of Neanderthal. (Photo by Markus Matzel/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
GERMANY - MARCH 20: Presentation Of Newly-Discovered Neanderthal Man Fossilized Bones - On March 20th, 1999 - In Mettmann, Germany (Photo by Patrick AVENTURIER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
GERMANY - MARCH 20: Presentation Of Newly-Discovered Neanderthal Man Fossilized Bones - On March 20th, 1999 - In Mettmann, Germany (Photo by Patrick AVENTURIER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1995: Anthropology - Reconstruction in wax of the head of Neanderthal man (Homo Sapiens Neanderthalensis). (Photo By DEA / A. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images)
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"Painting is something that has always been seen as a very human activity, so if Neanderthals are doing it they are being just like us," he told Reuters.

While some archaeologists already viewed Neanderthals as more sophisticated than their commonplace caricature, the evidence until now has been inconclusive. With the data from the three Spanish cave sites described in the journal Science, Pike and colleagues believe they finally have rock-solid proof.

The early cave art at La Pasiega, Maltravieso and Ardales includes lines, dots, discs and hand stencils - and creating them would have involved specific skills, such as mixing pigments and selecting appropriate display locations.

The Neanderthals living in the same land that would one day give birth to Diego Velazquez and Pablo Picasso also needed the intellectual ability to think symbolically, like modern humans.

Scientists used a precise dating system based on the radioactive decay of uranium isotopes into thorium to assess the age of the paintings. This involved scraping a few milligrams of calcium carbonate deposit from the paintings for analysis.

A second related study published in Science Advances found that dyed and decorated marine shells from a different Spanish cave also dated back to pre-human times.

Taken together, the researchers said their work suggested that Neanderthals were "cognitively indistinguishable" from early modern humans.

Joao Zilhao of the University of Barcelona said the new findings meant the search for the origins of human cognition needed to go back to the common ancestor of both Neanderthals and modern humans more than 500,000 years ago.

Neanderthals died out about 40,000 years ago, soon after direct ancestors arrived in Europe. It is unclear what killed them off, although theories include an inability to adapt to climate change and increased competition from modern humans.

If they were still alive today, Pike believes they could well have gone on develop complex art and technology.

"If they had been given the time, the resources and the population, then they might have ended up in some version of the world we live in today."

(Reporting by Ben Hirschler; Editing by Alison Williams)

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