Art is often held up as the most “human” of human endeavors. For millennia, philosophers, historians, and archaeologists have used art and symbolic thinking as behavioral indices for what makes humans, well, human. From abstract representation to creative and technical execution, art — and especially the agency that underlies it — has offered humankind a self-satisfying sense of being a uniquely creative group of hominins in our own evolutionary history.
It turns out, however, that we Homo sapiens are not the only species to explore art and its abstractions. Our evolutionary cousins, Neanderthals — long-maligned and historically stereotyped as knuckle-dragging troglodytes — had a complex sense of aesthetics. (Homo neanderthalensis — the formal name for Neanderthals — lived quite successfully across glaciated Europe, the Levant, and as far east as Central Asia for 350,000 years before becoming extinct around 40,000 years ago.) What they created and how they created it offers a window into Neanderthal life, cosmology, and abstraction.
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“I like to talk about Neanderthal aesthetics rather than a narrow, Western definition of visual art,” offers Dr. Rebecca Wragg Sykes, the author of the new book Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art. “And by aesthetics, I mean a creative experience that is meaningful to the person doing it. It might or might not have meaning to others.”
Historically, human-made — not Neanderthal-made — visual arts from the European Paleolithic periods have dominated how we talk about art from tens of thousands of years ago. Since Neanderthals weren’t creating things that looked like the famous cave paintings from Lascaux or the iconic Venus statuettes, it was easy to assume that Neanderthals were simply incapable of aesthetic expression. But this assumption, bias really, falls away when we expand what counts as aesthetic expression.
So what were Neanderthals creating? And how?
Neanderthals were very aware of how to use the material properties of things in their world to construct objects that carried specific meanings to them. In addition to working with raw materials like shells, stones, and bones — as well as making a plethora of pigments — Neanderthals were also interested in how elements like bird wings, feathers, and talons could be utilized to various aesthetic ends. In Kindred, Wragg Sykes describes how Neanderthals collected wings and talons from several species, favoring birds with distinctively dark plumages — blacks, dark browns, grays, and reds, indicating a Neanderthal color preference. Some bird talons might have even been strung together for ornamental wear.
Yet, Neanderthal interest in disarticulating, remodeling, and rearticulating body parts isn’t limited to birds. At Krapina site in Croatia, for example, there is a series of over 30 small parallel cut marks on a piece of Neanderthal skull that can’t be explained by butchery alone.“It’s clear that Neanderthals created objects with aesthetic qualities that they considered special, not just purely functional,” Wragg Sykes explains.
Neanderthals also made pigments that they used toward various aesthetic ends. Moreover, between 200,000-250,000 years ago, Neanderthals were making liquid red ochre; archaeologists have even found evidence of liquid ochre splashes at the Maastricht-Belvédère site in the Netherlands. Other archaeological evidence of pigments from sites across Europe show that Neanderthals were interested in making pigments that offered a variety of hues in reds, yellows, browns, grays, and blacks. The ochres and manganese used to create these colors were systematically and carefully collected from quarry sources. “Based on chemical analyses that have been done on the black manganese minerals, we can tell that Neanderthals were interested in the purer sources of those materials, often carrying them significant distances between places,” Wragg Sykes describes, careful to also note that pigment can serve functional roles as well as aesthetic ones.
Perhaps one of the most fascinating Neanderthal-made aesthetic objects is a painted fossil shell found by archaeologists at Fumane Cave in northern Italy in 2005, as discussed in Kindred. The red ochre-painted shell dates somewhere between 45,000–47,500 years ago; the shell has a worn lip where something soft had repeatedly rubbed, suggesting that the painted shell had once been strung and thus, that several steps had been taken with an end aesthetic goal in mind. Moreover, twisted plant fibers found at Abri du Maras in France indicate a very finely crafted, classic three-ply thread, opening up questions regarding the existence of Neanderthal textile crafts.
Our understanding of Neanderthal aesthetics is, understandably, biased toward physical things, specifically toward physical things that can preserve over hundreds of thousands of years — any sort of curated sensory experience wouldn’t leave traces in the archaeological record. “Neanderthals’ commitment to quality and materiality underlies what we can know about their aesthetics,” Wragg Sykes points out.
Neanderthal commitment to their material techne offers a powerful reminder that we humans do not hold the species monopoly on art.