“An academic bombshell.” That’s what Professor Jose Luis Sanchidrian of the University of Cordoba, author of “The Manual of Prehistoric Art,” calls his latest archeological find. In southern Spain, in Andalusia’s Caves of Nerja, Sanchidrian’s team may have discovered the oldest surviving cave paintings in the world. And the identity of the artists could change conventional conceptions of just what it means to be human.
Rediscovered by 20th century humans in 1959, the Caves of Nerja were home to many groups of prehistoric people over the course of several thousand years. In the past several decades, a number of ancient artifacts and cave paintings have been discovered at the Nerja site. But this latest find could trump them all in archaeological importance.
This set of simple ochre paintings — thought to be a representations of seals, which were a major food source for some prehistoric peoples — may be more than 10,000 years older than the Chauvent-Pont-d’Arc Cave paintings, which were previously thought to be the oldest surviving paintings in the world. While directing a conservation project to preserve Nerja’s paintings, Sanchidrian sent a sample of charcoal found near the paintings to a lab in Miami for carbon dating, and discovered that the seal paintings were likely painted more than 42,000 years ago.
But the paintings’ origin may be even more remarkable than their age. As far as archaeologists can tell, there were no humans of the Homo sapiens sapiens variety living at Nerja 42,000 years ago. At that time, the cave complex in southern Spain was inhabited by a different branch of the human family tree — Neanderthals.
Anatomically modern humans — that is, Homo sapiens sapiens, people who, anatomically speaking, were pretty much indistinguishable from the people who populate the world today — evolved as early as 200,000 years ago, but it took time for our ancestors to migrate across the globe, and for tens of thousands of years, while modern humans were spreading throughout Africa, Neanderthals still dominated Europe. Scientists working at Nerja have previously found Neanderthal tools dating to around 40,000 years ago in the caves, but there is no evidence that modern humans inhabited the caves at that time. The area is thought to be one of the last Neanderthal refuges before the Neanderthal extinction at around 30,000 B.C.E.
Smaller, simpler works of art created by Neanderthals have been found before, but the cave paintings at Nerja — so similar to cave paintings created during the same era by anatomically modern humans — indicate a sophisticated understanding of artistic principles and a high level of artistic skill. If the Nerja paintings were created by Neanderthals, Sanchidrian says, it could prompt a “radical change” in the way we view our extinct human cousins — and ourselves.
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