Sunday, July 14

The Earliest Neanderthal Engravings Were Stored for 57,000 Years in a Cave

Paleolithic people stood before the cave wall, its chalky, smooth rock appealing like a blank canvas, more than 57,000 years ago. Their motives and ideas will always remain unknown. But these imaginative cave-dwellers purposefully created long-lasting lines and dots that would stay concealed beneath the French countryside for tens of thousands of years by running their fingers across the rock and pressing them into the cave wall.

Read More: Neanderthal art

Scientists have recently found that the earliest known examples of Neanderthal cave carvings are these stunning patterns.

In order to verify that these remarkable patterns are the deliberate, well-organized works of human hands, the authors of a research published on Wednesday in PLOS One examined, mapped, and 3D modeled these markings. They then compared them with other wall markings of various kinds. The carvings within the cave were sealed at least 57,000 years ago, and perhaps as far back as 75,000 years ago, before Homo sapiens even set foot in this region of Europe, according to the team’s dating of the vast silt layers that had obscured the cave’s entry.

This discovery confirms that Neanderthals created the cave art and adds to the mounting evidence that our closest relatives were more sophisticated than the stupid caveman caricature may imply. It is further corroborated by the cave’s assortment of distinctive Neanderthal stone implements.

“It was believed for a very long time that Neanderthals could only think about how to survive,” says Jean-Claude Marquet, a co-author of the research and archaeologist from the University of Tours in France. “I believe that this discovery should cause prehistorians who doubted Neanderthal abilities to reevaluate.”

Nestled on a forested slope above the Loire River lies an old cave known as La Roche-Cotard. When quarries were used in the region in 1846 to build a railroad route, it was first discovered. Paleolithic hunters had visited the site many thousands of years earlier, as evidenced by the array of archaic stone tools and the charred, cut-marked bones of bison, horses, and deer found within during the site’s initial excavation in 1912.

The finger tracings’ ordered form was originally observed by scientists in the 1970s. The authors of the new study painstakingly mapped the different panels starting in 2016 and made 3D models to compare with other known instances of Paleolithic carvings. They also recognized the numerous additional marks on the cave’s walls left by metal or other tools used during contemporary excursions into the cave after 1912, as well as by the claws of animals like cave bears. According to Marquet, this procedure assisted in demonstrating that the engraved panels were made in an orderly and deliberate fashion. He claims, “These panels were not produced carelessly or in a rush.”

The findings also revealed that the soft chalk wall, or tuffeau, which is composed of tiny quartz grains and pieces of old mollusk shells, was worked by human hands to form the patterns. There is a thin veneer of clay and sandstone covering the porous rock.

According to Marquet, “an elongated digital trace is left when the tip of the finger moves; an impact-shaped trace is left when the finger comes into contact with this film.” He has direct knowledge of this procedure. In a neighboring cave composed of the same kind of rock, the researchers replicated this technique. They made carvings on walls that resembled those found in antiquity by using their fingers as well as instruments made of bone, wood, antler, and stone.

The images, according to co-author Eric Robert, an archaeologist at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, are indecipherable since they were created by a people that has since disappeared for viewing by its peers.

“These pictures are not for us, and we don’t have the answers to comprehend their significance or their potentially numerous, varied purposes,” he declares.

Scientists have determined that the collection of abandoned stone tools found in the cave are of the Mousterian kind, which are highly developed flake tools generally connected to Neanderthals. This implies that Neanderthals were the only people that used the cave, as evidenced by the sculptures on the walls. The authors do point out that they are unable to determine a clear connection between the engravings and those abandoned instruments.

However, examination of adjacent layers provides yet another compelling line of geological evidence. Parts of the cave were carved out by repeated flooding during the Paleolithic era, when the Loire River was closer to the mountainside. After the river shifted its path, the floods eventually left behind heavy sediments that entirely blocked off the cave. These sediments were then further eroded by wind and the slope above. There is still plenty of evidence demonstrating how sediment layers were added throughout time, covering the slope and cave entrance entirely and down to a depth of more than thirty feet.

This covering remained in place until 1846, when the cave entrance was exposed due to debris excavated for the railroad embankment. By using optically stimulated luminescence dating, which can establish how long it has been since sediment grains like quartz were exposed to daylight, the sediments above and surrounding the cave entrance—a portion of the strata that encased it prior to 19th-century excavations—were assigned a date. The cave was most likely sealed off at least 57,000 years ago, long before people ever existed in this region of France, according to a total of 50 sediment samples that were taken. The earliest known cave drawings linked to Neanderthals were previously an abstract cross-hatching design discovered in Gibraltar’s Gorham’s Cave, which dates to about 39,000 years ago.

Robert points out that there are several lines of evidence that show that Neanderthals decorated the cave walls, including the existence of Neanderthal tools, geological data, and study of the engravings themselves.

Archaeologist Paul Pettitt of Durham University in England, who was not involved in the research, says, “The authors present as convincing a case as can be made from a site disturbed by early excavations that the animal and human marks on its walls were left long before the arrival of our own species in Europe.” “This provides strong indirect, cumulative evidence that Neanderthals produced the finger markings given that the archaeology of the cave is exclusively indicative of Neanderthals, with no evidence of subsequent Upper Paleolithic occupation, presumably because the cave was inaccessible at this time.”

Long ago, members of our lineage of ancestors started using visual means to express themselves; about half a million years ago, Homo erectus engraved zigzag designs onto a shell. On the Tibetan Plateau, a set of handprints and footprints that may have been intentionally left by human children 200,000 years ago have been discovered.

The first documented cave paintings in the world could have been created by Neanderthals, or Homo neanderthalensis. Pettitt was a member of the team that discovered artwork in three caves in Spain that date back 65,000 years and are attributed to Neanderthal painters. When early people drew around their hands or pressed their stained fingertips on walls, they left behind red-pigmented artwork.

Later on, there are examples of the very distinct cave art created by Homo sapiens. Estimated to have been painted 45,500 years ago, the purple pig was discovered on the walls of a cave tucked away in a highland valley on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. If the date is accurate, the Leang Tedongnge cave may be the first example of figurative art—a style of painting in which artists depict actual objects rather than abstract patterns. Complex lions and mammoths painted maybe 30,000 to 40,000 years ago can be seen in the collections at the El Castillo cave in Spain and the Chauvet cave in France. These caves are significant early instances of this intricate, figurative art, which is unlike anything Neanderthals are known to have produced—at least to this point.

However, such difference does not imply that Neanderthal inventions are the result of less sophisticated brains or cognitive processes. Robert thinks it is unnecessary to draw parallels between Neanderthal and modern human customs. He thinks that the advent of prehistoric paintings and carvings for each species has less to do with when humans were able to produce them than it does with when social dynamics generated a need for them at a particular period, even though we are not sure what those requirements were.