New finds in the caves of Spain raise the question of whether Neanderthals made art.
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The cave paintings of Altamira were discovered in 1879 by the nine-year-old daughter of a Spanish nobleman named Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola. She was exploring the cave with her father—who was enticed by recent excavations of prehistoric artifacts in Spain and France—when she spotted a herd of bison grazing overhead. The sophistication with which they were drawn was astonishing. They showed a sureness of line unlike anything known from the Ice Age, a realism eons apart from the engraved mammoth tusks familiar to archaeologists. Invited to visit Altamira, King Alfonso XII was so impressed that he crawled on his knees to view the deepest caverns. The archaeological establishment had the opposite reaction. With the exception of a couple of Spaniards, experts dismissed the cave paintings of Altamira as a hoax: While “crude” ivory fetishes could be reconciled with Ice Age “primitives,” the notion that a Cro-Magnon could draw as well as Ingres simply didn’t fit accepted ideas of human progress.
Over the following decades, more caves were explored, and more paintings were found, some as nuanced as those in Altamira. Gradually scholars came to accept Cro-Magnons’ artistic prowess, and modern artists assimilated it. In 1905–06, Henri Matisse used cave painting as a source for his Fauvist masterpiece Le bonheur de vivre. In 1908, one of Sanz de Sautuola’s most virulent critics, the French archaeologist Émile Cartailhac, published a monograph on Altamira in which he confessed to having been “blinded by some dangerous spirit of dogmatism.”
Last summer, Altamira was once again under scrutiny, one of 11 Spanish caves that Bristol University archaeologists reevaluated using a new dating technique. By measuring the radioactivity of calcite deposits on the paintings, they determined that some of the artwork was significantly older than previously believed. Encrustation covering club-shaped markings at Altamira was found to be at least 36,500 years old—10,000 years older than expected. And in the nearby El Castillo cave, calcite accretions on a red ochre dot were determined to be more than 40,800 years old. Those dates opened up the possibility that the artists were not all human. The earliest paintings could have been the work of Neanderthals.
Homo neanderthalis lived in northwestern Spain as recently as 42,000 years ago, at least briefly sharing the territory with our own species, Homo sapiens, which was emerging from Africa and spreading across Europe. During the overlap—before Neanderthals retreated south and went extinct—there was enough interaction to leave four percent Neanderthal DNA in the modern human gene pool. The notion that we’re part Neanderthal, genetically, first revealed in 2010, came as a serious shock, for it suggested that a mere 1,500 generations ago we could interbreed with another hominid, and that we did so with some frequency. We are finding that there is less and less to distinguish our species, to explain how we came to dominate life on Earth, let alone justify our hegemony. Crows use tools. Dolphins are empathic. Chimps can learn language. Art seems to be the only activity left to set us apart.
As a result, the question of who made the cave paintings of Altamira and El Castillo was tainted by the dangerous spirit of dogmatism from the moment the re-dating was revealed. The discoverers set the tone by hypothesizing that Neanderthals were the artists. “There is a very good chance that this is Neanderthal,” team leader Alistair Pike told Nature, leading to a barrage of media interest and a bitter response from pundits including Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones. “It is political correctness gone prehistoric,” he fumed. “This urge to big-up the Neanderthals is a symptom of our self-loathing.”
Neither side is supported by anything more substantive than wishful thinking. The most ancient paintings in northwestern Spain might be more than 40,800 years old. Neanderthals may have left northwestern Spain more recently than 42,000 years ago. Either way, humans could have been in northwestern Spain at the time, and if they were around, they might have been the artists, the audience, or just oblivious bystanders. Given present evidence, the debate is meaningless. The only conceivable purpose is to reassure ourselves that all creatures are our kin (in spite of the damage we’ve done to them), or to convince ourselves that human superiority is inviolate (and that our voracious consumption of global resources is justified). Much as Cartailhac’s assessment of Altamira reflected his cultural bias, what we see in these earlier cave paintings mirrors a contemporary societal divide.
Attempting to interpret paleolithic images only takes us deeper into ourselves. We may recognize the bison painted by our ancestors at Altamira—or the famous bulls of Lascaux or the horses of Chauvet—but that doesn’t mean we know why they were painted. The problem is exacerbated when the painting is abstract, a line or a dot. Of course many theories have been advanced. One of the first, posited by the French prehistorian Henri Breuil in the early 1900s, is that cave painting is the visible trace of magical hunting rituals and that the abstract symbols frequently flanking animals represent traps and weapons. During World War II, German émigré art historian Max Raphael countered that the animals stand for clan totems and that the cave paintings are concerned with battle. By the 1960s, hunting and fighting were out of style, and human sexuality was in, which gave ballast to the hypothesis advanced by French anthropologist André Leroi-Gourhan that the paintings were about sexual duality. (His proposed symbolism didn’t just encompass animals. Dots and lines were male; triangles and ovals were female.) Today sexual interpretations remain fashionable, albeit in terms more pop-cultural than psychoanalytical. The American paleobiologist Dale Guthrie has spent the past decade arguing that most markings are “below-the-belt” paleo-graffiti.
If the interpretation of figurative art can run the gamut from magic to sex, virtually any theory can explain the meaning of a 40,000-year-old dot potentially painted by a Neanderthal. It’s the ultimate expression of artistic ambiguity, the earliest known Rorschach blot (albeit probably not conceived as such). Maybe the location was what mattered, and the dot just marks it. Or perhaps the dot is the inadvertent record of a forgotten action. The red ochre appears to have been blown onto the wall. Was blowing a technique of painting or was painting a byproduct of breathing? The power of this ancient artwork stands in its enduring elusiveness.
“Después de Altamira, todo es decadencia,” Pablo Picasso famously proclaimed upon exiting the Altamira cave. After Altamira, all is decadence. The quote may be apocryphal, since there’s no record of Picasso’s visit in the Altamira guestbooks, but his admiration for Ice Age art has been noted by acquaintances including Brassaï and André Malraux. In Brassaï’s case, discussion concerned the 23,000-year-old Venus of Lespugue, two castings of which Picasso owned. “One conforms to the damaged model, the other is whole, restored,” wrote Brassaï in Conversations With Picasso. “Picasso adores this very first goddess of fecundity, the quintessence of female form, whose flesh, as if called forth by male desire, seems to swell and grow from around a kernel.” Naturally Picasso borrowed freely from the statuette, giving his own expression to the quintessence of female form in his 1933 Femme au vase.
The liberating influence of Ice Age imagery was one of the great forces in 20th-century art. Matisse’s Le bonheur de vivre and Picasso’s Femme au vase are just two of the foremost products. Prehistory offered artists an apparently ageless archetype, formidable enough to topple academic ideals. (“I promise you the most intense emotion you have ever experienced,” wrote Amédée Ozenfant, describing the cave paintings of Les Eyzies in his 1928 book Foundations of Modern Art.) Modernists saw a primal quality in prehistory—a cross between Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Josephine Baker—which they sought as an antidote to decadent culture. Their interpretation had no more scientific justification than the hypotheses of Breuil or Leroi-Gourhan. If anything, it was less tenable. But unlike Leroi-Gourhan and Breuil, these artists transformed their hazy notions into profound painting and sculpture.
And in that respect, they got prehistory right. The caves of northwestern Spain are striking not only for the age of the oldest paintings, but also for the youth of the newest ones. In Altamira, Alistair Pike found some made just 11,000 years ago, sharing space with 35,000-year-old artwork. Some wall compositions emerged over hundreds of generations, evolving as abstract and figurative motifs overlapped physically and interacted visually. These overlays weren’t due to lack of space—other walls remain blank. Rather, there seems to have been some sort of collaboration: 25,000 years of pictorial riffing. If Neanderthals were responsible for the first markings, then the riffing happened across species. Without literally drawing on the walls, 20th-century artists picked up the conversation.
That isn’t to say they had the same intentions, or that intentions remained consistent over the 25 millennia within the caves. Intentions don’t have to match, or even to be known, in order for creative influence to happen. If anything, the opposite is the case. Misinterpretation is a mighty engine of innovation.
Modernism has now run its course. The art of Matisse and Picasso retains its power, as does that of the paleolithic precursors, but the notion of an Ice Age idyll now seems ridiculous. As the debate over Neanderthal art suggests, we are still formulating our new version of prehistory. That vision will depend on art as much as science.
The time has come for a new collaboration across the ages. The red dot of El Castillo is an apt point of departure.
This article originally appeared in the March issue of Art & Antiques Magazine as “But is it Human?”
By Jonathon Keats