Jun 16, 2012

Fingerprints of the Neanderthals

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

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As discussed, a recent discovery attributes what is possibly the world's oldest art not to Homo sapiens but to Neanderthals.With results of the finished study now published in Science, comes a more thorough reassessment of Neanderthals and their place in prehistory.

Several times in the past 10 years scientists have had to rewrite the textbooks on Neanderthals, the latest species of human to go extinct. Once the archetype for primitive, uncivilised behaviour, the species, illuminated through fossil excavations and lately analysis of their genome, has emerged as being not too dissimilar from our own.

Contrary to their dim-witted image Neanderthals have been found to have used tools, to have worn jewellery, and, lastly, to have interbred with our Homo sapiens ancestors to such an extent that 4% of every modern European's genome is traceable to Neanderthal origins.

In my lifetime, Neanderthals have gone from being an early stage in human evolution, to a totally separate species, to a coexisting subspecies that interbred with Homo sapiens. This is what I mean when I say that good science -- and the past itself -- is self-revising. Many of our assumptions about Neanderthals merit reexamination. It is now clear that they were not the stupid distant cousins of proto-humans. They appear to have been at least as intelligent and creative as our direct forebears. And it may well be that even some of the cave art that has been attributed to Paleolithic humans was actually the creation of Neanderthals.

[Joao] Zilhao and his colleagues turned to a different method: uranium-thorium dating. As anyone who has seen a stalactite knows, caves are always undergoing slow change. The same processes that create stalactites and stalagmites leave thin deposits of the mineral calcite over some cave paintings. This calcite contains miniscule amounts of radioactive uranium, which decays to thorium over time.

. . .

Because the calcite came after the paintings, this sets a minimum age for the art. What researchers don't know is how long the initial calcite deposit took, so the paintings could be anywhere from hundreds to thousands of years older than the minimum dates.

The researchers took samples from 11 Spanish caves, including famed spots like Altamira with its painted herds of bison. At Altamira, they found an image of a red horse that dates back at least 22,000 years and a clublike image that is at least 35,600 years old. The club symbol has been painted over with the famous colorful bison herd, which dates to around 18,000 years ago. In other words, Altamira was a popular spot for artists for a very long time. [Images: Altamira & Other Amazing Caves]

At another cave, El Castillo in northern Spain, the researchers found primitive art of mind-boggling age. This cave contained the 40,800-year-old red disk. It also sported a hand stencil, created by an artist spitting red pigment over his or her hand to leave a handprint, that dates back more than 37,300 years.

More exact dating continues to be a problem and there is still much debate about the significance of the findings. But the one thing that is increasingly clear is that Graham Hancock's fictional accounting in of early human and Neanderthal relations in Entangled is being proved by non-fictional research.

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