Homo sapiens have long looked down on Neanderthals as the less sophisticated side of the family, but in the latest piece of evidence to the contrary, a team of scientists say they have identified the oldest intentional — and non-utilitarian — markings made by Neanderthals, found in the La Roche-Cotard cave in central France.
Jean-Claude Marquet of France’s Université de Tours led the research, published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE in late June. While historians have known about the engravings since the 1970s, Marquet and his team are the first to argue that the 57,000-year-old markings constitute “unambiguous examples of Neanderthal abstract design.”
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The La Roche-Cotard cave provides scientists with a unique opportunity for Neanderthal research. It was sealed with sediment 51,000 years ago, 6,000 years before Homo sapiens arrived in Western Europe. The cavern was reopened by quarry workers in 1846. Neanderthals, therefore, stand as the only possible inhabitants of the cave (besides lions, bears, and hyenas, according to the recent study).
The team used photogrammetry to create three-dimensional modelings of eight sections of the cave walls, where our humanoid relatives had raked the clay-like surface with their fingers.
In one panel near the cave’s entrance, a Neanderthal creator carved two sides of a triangle into lower parts of the soft clay-like surface, effectively creating a raised shape. The bottom-most point of the triangle overlaps with a naturally occurring rock. Not only do Marquet and his team argue that the creator considered the wall shape in crafting their work, but that they slowed their fingers as they approached the apex of the triangle, thereby creating a decisive end to the line. (The scientists discovered this by examining the depth of the marks.)
“These drawings have been applied, are structured, and were not made quickly or without prior thought,” Marquet said in a statement, cited by the Guardian.
Other sections such as the “Circular” and “Undulated” panels appear to exhibit unity between the sets of finger marks. In the engraving on the left, the artist seems to have purposefully crafted an oval shape. In the design on the right, the Neanderthal created a wave-shaped central axis with smaller markings surrounding it.
While the new research proves Neanderthals’ artistic intentionality, Marquet told Hyperallergic that it’s impossible to decipher the meaning of the designs. Still, the scientist hopes the new discovery will encourage other researchers to go back and examine similar markings.
“The most exciting part of this discovery, which took place 40 years ago, is that the demonstration of its importance comes only after this long period of questioning,” said Marquet, “Looking for solutions for dating, studying the environment, and being patient, very patient.”
The discovery is just the latest nugget of good press for Neanderthals. Among a number of other findings, researchers have confirmed that Neanderthals created splatter paintings, cave architecture, and eagle talon jewelry, and that they intentionally buried their dead.