In 2018 an international group of scientists announced that The world’s first artists were Neanderthals, after analyzing the paintings that these humans made more than 64,000 years ago in three caves in Malaga, Cantabria and Cáceres. Right away ignited the debate among experts, as some argued that the red patterns observed had a natural origin, due to oxidation or biological formations in the caves.
Now a European team, led by researchers from the University of Barcelona (UB) and with participants from the 2018 study, confirm the human origin of the paintings found in one of the caves: Ardales cave, (also known as Doña Trinidad cave), in Malaga.
The new work, published in Magazine PNAS, shows that Neanderthals were the authors of these paintings after performing various analyzes (optical microscopy, scanning electron microscopy, spectroscopy and X-ray diffraction …) to the red pigments that appear in some stalagmites.
According to the investigation, the Neanderthals would have accessed the cavity on several occasions to symbolically and repeatedly mark the stalagmitic formation.
Ardales cave is one of the caverns with parietal art [en paredes] Palaeolithic most important southern Europe. More than a thousand graphic representations have been found in it. However, the pigments that make up the cave paintings had not been studied in detail until now.
Study of reddish residues
Analysis of the small amounts of reddish residue collected on the surface of the stalagmites reveals that it is an ocher-based pigment, which was applied intentionally.
“Both the location and distribution of the marks, as well as the size and morphology of the crystals that make up these red residues rule out that they are deposits of natural origin derived from the action of microorganisms or geological processes such as river flows, the percolation of waters or the weathering of the walls “, affirms Àfrica Pitarch, principal investigator of the project.
Comparison of these residues with samples from various deposits of iron compounds found inside the cave further suggests that the pigment used to make the paintings probably comes from an outcrop located outside the cave.
“The ferruginous deposits in the cavity present textural and compositional features that are very different from those observed in archaeological samples,” adds the researcher, “and this would imply that the authors of these red spots had to search, select, collect and transport the coloring matters that would later be used in the cavity, that is to say, that there was a certain level of organization “.
The symbolic systems of Neanderthals
According to the study, the compositional variations between the paint samples correspond to the differences in the chronology of the stalagmitic layers that cover them, which can reach thousands of years. This fact indicates that several generations of Neanderthals have visited the cave and repeatedly marked with red ocher the great stalagmitic dome.
Based on this observation, the authors believe that these paintings cannot be considered art in the strict sense, but rather that these marks were intended to perpetuate the symbolic meaning of a space. The authors suggest that this type of marking represents the beginning of a long process, in which the new needs linked to social complexity have triggered the appearance of new symbolic traditions linked to more varied and innovative techniques.
“The data of the cave of Ardales and other Iberian caves with parietal art made ago 65,000 years indicate that the underground world played a fundamental role in the symbolic systems of the Neanderthal communities “, he explains João Zilhão, co-author of the study.
The action of repeatedly marking with red pigment speleothems as imposing as the Ardales dome, it suggests that the authors “sought to highlight and perpetuate the importance of this location through narratives transmitted between generations, which would strengthen the cohesion between the members of the group and their territory,” concludes the expert.
Dating of the paintings
Despite the efforts of archaeologists to document and interpret cave art, some unanswered questions remain about the origin, chronology, technology, function, and meaning of this type of art.
Research in recent years has focused mainly on dating the oldest paintings by the method of uranium-thorium. This technique, which is applied to calcite accumulations in stratigraphic association with paintings, shows that this type of artistic manifestation is much older than was initially supposed.
In paintings analyzed in the islands of Borneo and Sulawesi (Indonesia), for example, minimum ages of 39,900 and 43,900 years have been obtained respectively. Another example is that of the El Castillo cave (Cantabria), where a minimum age of 40,800 years has been obtained for a red disc.
The oldest chronologies, up to 64,800 years old, correspond to a negative hand (Maltravieso, Cáceres), a set of linear strokes forming a symbol similar to a staircase (La Pasiega, Cantabria) and the group of colored stalagmites from the cave of Ardales.