Our Very Human Ancestors

To one who has seldom given a thought to cavemen as a popular category, let alone to their proper scientific classification, last week’s news that they were painting pictures on cave walls more than 40,000 years ago required some intensive research on Wikipedia as well as an effort of the imagination. What does it mean if the much-maligned Neanderthals created cave art before Homo sapiens arrived on the scene? Do we have to look at these — and perhaps earlier — human ancestors with new respect?

Ancient cave paintings have always stirred the soul of modern man. These expressions of the soul of ancient man connect us to our prehistoric ancestors in ways that mere stone tools and other artefacts do not. The drawing of a bison or an antelope or fish, and even more the creation of symbolic designs, evoke the gesture of a man’s (or woman’s) hand moved by the creative spirit of the artist, and this spiritual quality is something we recognise as quintessentially human. We see someone like ourselves reflecting on and seeking the meaning of life, compared to someone driven by the almost biological necessity of making tools for the purpose of staying alive.

Although Neanderthals decorated their tools and bodies, until now, the dignity of the artist as painter has been reserved for Homo sapiens. Based on carbon-dating of cave paintings, the oldest were thought to be in the Chauvet cave in France, dating back between 32,000 and 37,000 years. Modern humans are considered to have replaced, or very largely replaced, Neanderthals by then, having arrived in Europe about 41,000 to 45,000 years ago.

Now scientists have revisited 11 caves in northern Spain and used tests based on the decay of uranium atoms to date the deposits that have coated the paintings over millennia. They reported in Science magazine (June 15) evidence that in one cave, El Castillo, a painting of a red sphere is at least 40,800 years old, and 25 hand prints outlined in red in another cave are at least 37,300 years old. Aside from any Franco -Iberian contests that may arise, these findings are quite momentous.

At the very least the new discoveries blur the line between Neanderthals and modern humans. The scientists say that the paintings could have been the work of the latter as they arrived in Europe bringing the tradition of cave painting with them, or that very soon after they got to Europe they started painting caves for some reason. But the lead author of the study reported in Science last week, Alistair Pike of the University of Bristol, says he is “fairly certain that Neanderthals had something to do with it.”

In a podcast interview with Science Pike gives a sort of evolutionary reason why Europe forged ahead of Africa in cultural innovation and how Neanderthals might have provoked that advance into symbolic behaviour, even if they did not do the actual painting. Pike’s colleague Joao Zilhao points out that they decorated their tools and their bodies, so why not cave walls?

Meanwhile, carbon dating of Aboriginal rock art (pictured right) discovered in Narwal Gabarnmang rock shelter in northern Australia has put the paintings at about 28,000 years old. A stone axe found at the same site has been dated 35,000 years old and there is evidence that human use of the cave dates back 45,000 years. The artwork reflects the importance of animals as food, but also shows an almost scientific interest in the creature: a picture of a fish will show the backbone and swim bladder and other internal organs — as in an X-ray. Once again, art testifies to the humanity of a people lost in the mists of time.

Exactly how that humanity expressed itself is less important in the end than the fact that there is a human mind and soul behind the decorated tools or rock paintings. Writing about the bad press “cavemen” were getting nearly a century ago (in his 1921 short story, “The Grisly Folk,” H G Wells had portrayed them as savage and barbaric creatures who deserved their fate of extinction) G K Chesterton observed that, deep as the explorer had to go to find the pictures of reindeer drawn on cave walls by ancient man, he would have to go a long way further to find a picture of man drawn by a reindeer.

However, art is not the only or the most important measure of specifically human life. A few years ago archaeologists discovered, again in Spain, the skull of a child among bones at the Sima de los Huesos site, which is some 530,000 years old. What was remarkable about this find, which they named Cranium 14, was the evidence that the child was severely mentally retarded because of a deformity known as craniosynostosis, and yet she survived for at least five and possibly as long as twelve years.

As the scientists who reported the find said, “It is obvious that the [Sima de Huesos] hominin species did not act against the abnormal/ill individuals during the infancy, as has happened along our own history many times and in many cultures”.

Michael Cook, who picked up on the article at the time added:

Were the hunter-gatherer Middle Pleistocene hearts of the family of Cranium 14 wrung with ancient grief when she died? We don’t know. We know only that her bones speak of tenderness and compassion. Season after season, under unimaginably harsh conditions, they tended her with callused hands until she died. Nowadays, if her disability had been detected early enough, she would probably be aborted. Civilisation is a mixed blessing sometimes.

While scientists pursue their research on the history of humanity, it would pay to keep an open mind on the subject of the human spirit and give respect where it is due.


Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

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Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

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