Neanderthals were painting caves in Europe long before modern humans, study finds

Red markings, which date back to more than 60,000 years ago, were made on a massive stalagmite 325 feet (100 meters) into Cueva de Ardales near Málaga, Spain.

(CNN)Whether Neanderthals thought symbolically and had an artistic sensibility has been a question that has vexed experts in human evolution.

But evidence is mounting that our Stone Age cousins were our cognitive equals and created forms of art in Europe long before Homo sapiens were on the scene.
A new study of a rock feature stained red in a cave in southern Spain has concluded that the red pigment -- made from ocher -- was intentionally painted, most likely by Neanderthals, refuting earlier research that said the red marks were natural.
    The markings, which date back to more than 60,000 years ago, were made on a massive stalagmite 328 feet (100 meters) into Cueva de Ardales near Málaga. The stalagmite's domelike shape was formed by pillars of mineral deposited by water, and the markings were made inside folds of rock that resembled drawn curtains.
      The researchers analyzed samples of the red residues and concluded that the ocher, a natural pigment found in clay, used to make them was brought to the cave from somewhere else -- although the study did not determine exactly from where.
      This suggested the pigment had to "be collected, transported and prepared in advance of entering the cave, implying deliberation and planning, which are additionally implied by the need to have adequate lighting," said study author João Zilhão, an ICREA (Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies) research professor at the University of Barcelona and the University of Lisbon.
      The authors said it wasn't art in a narrow sense -- an image or object that is beautiful or expresses feelings -- but was likely a way to mark a place that was symbolically important to them.
        The researchers believe "the dome is the symbol, and the paintings are there to mark it as such, not the other way around," according to the study, which published in the journal PNAS Monday.
        This is a close-up of the red markings, which were made from ocher.

        Underground world

        The study compared the red-stained rock formation to Bruniquel, a site in France, where mysterious circular structures made from stalagmites were found 984 feet (300 meters) inside an underground cave in France. Wrenched from the cave floor and meticulously put together more than 175,000 years ago, their discovery suggested experts may have previously underestimated the abilities of the early human species.
        "All we can say with certainty is that the underground was important to them. We can also speculate that, with all likelihood, it was for mythological reasons," Zilhão said.
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