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Primitive Art: Neanderthals Were Europe’s First Painters

Neanderthals died out about 40,000 years ago, soon after direct ancestors arrived in Europe

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Neanderthals
Neanderthal paintings can be seen in a cave in Pasiega, Spain in this photo obtained Feb. 22, 2018. University of Southampton. VOA
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The world’s oldest known cave paintings were made by Neanderthals, not modern humans, suggesting our extinct cousins were far from being uncultured brutes.

A high-tech analysis of cave art at three Spanish sites, published on Thursday, dates the paintings to at least 64,800 years ago, or 20,000 years before modern humans arrived in Europe from Africa.

That makes the cave art much older than previously thought and provides the strongest evidence yet that Neanderthals had the cognitive capacity to understand symbolic representation, a central pillar of human culture.

ALSO READ: French Scientists discover World’s oldest structure built by Neanderthals about 170,000 years ago

Neanderthals
While some archaeologists already viewed Neanderthals as more sophisticated than their commonplace caricature, the evidence until now has been inconclusive. Pixabay

“What we’ve got here is a smoking gun that really overturns the notion that Neanderthals were knuckle-dragging cavemen,” said Alistair Pike, professor of archaeological sciences at the University of Southampton, who co-led the study.

“Painting is something that has always been seen as a very human activity, so if Neanderthals are doing it they are being just like us,” he told Reuters.

With the data from the three Spanish cave sites described in the journal Science, Pike and colleagues believe they finally have rock-solid proof.

The early cave art at La Pasiega, Maltravieso and Ardales includes lines, dots, discs and hand stencils — and creating them would have involved specific skills, such as mixing pigments and selecting appropriate display locations.

The Neanderthals living in the same land that would one day give birth to Diego Velazquez and Pablo Picasso also needed the intellectual ability to think symbolically, like modern humans.

Scientists used a precise dating system based on the radioactive decay of uranium isotopes into thorium to assess the age of the paintings. This involved scraping a few milligrams of calcium carbonate deposit from the paintings for analysis.

A second related study published in Science Advances found that dyed and decorated marine shells from a different Spanish cave also dated back to pre-human times.

Neanderthals
Taken together, the researchers said their work suggested that Neanderthals were “cognitively indistinguishable” from early modern humans. Pixabay

ALSO READ: How About Some Tasty Woolly Rhinoceros for Dinner?

Joao Zilhao of the University of Barcelona said the new findings meant the search for the origins of human cognition needed to go back to the common ancestor of both Neanderthals and modern humans more than 500,000 years ago.

Neanderthals died out about 40,000 years ago, soon after direct ancestors arrived in Europe. It is unclear what killed them off, although theories include an inability to adapt to climate change and increased competition from modern humans.

If they were still alive today, Pike believes they could well have gone on developing complex art and technology.

“If they had been given the time, the resources and the population, then they might have ended up in some version of the world we live in today.” (VOA)

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US Painted in New Colours By A Refugee Artist

"There's so much talk in the news now about refugees, and how many people we should let into the country, and what are they contributing," Weiss said.

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Ahmad Alkarkhi has started painting with a whole new color palette since he came to the U.S. These colorful horses represent refugees who come from all over and work and live together. VOA

Refugees carry few material possessions when they flee war, violence or persecution in their homelands. But they do bring talent and skill to their new countries.

At the Sandy Spring Museum in Sandy Spring, Maryland, that talent is on display in an exhibit of six refugee artists from Iraq, Ethiopia and Somalia.

Some of the displayed works depict the refugee artists’ memories of their homelands.

“My hometown is Wollo,” explained Ethiopian artist Fetun Getachew. “There is a marketplace once a week. People meet there at the markets for not only buying or selling, [but] just meet together for so many purposes.”

Six artists from Iraq, Ethiopia and Somalia exhibit their work at the Sandy Spring Museum in Maryland, which bills itself as the "heart of the community."
Six artists from Iraq, Ethiopia and Somalia exhibit their work at the Sandy Spring Museum in Maryland, which bills itself as the “heart of the community.” VOA

Iraqi artist Ahmad Alkarkhi contributed a landscape of his country. “I want to show Americans good things about my country,” he said. “This beautiful landscape, no war or different things.”

But coming to a new country inevitably changes the work. For Alkarkhi, it has added color.

“In my country, we don’t have a lot of color there, just gray and brown,” he said. “Here, I saw four seasons clear. I saw many colors. This … change[s] my art, and I need to add more colors to my painting.”

In an unincorporated community of about 6,000 people near Washington, D.C., the museum considers itself a “living history museum,” but not in the conventional sense in which museums employ re-enactors to depict history.

Iraqi Exhibition
Visitors study some of the works on display in the refugee exhibit at the Sandy Spring Museum in Maryland. Many of the works depict scenes from the artists’ home countries. VOA

Rather, Sandy Spring is a place where the community can gather and “have unexpected encounters,” according to the museum website. “It means having cultural artists create experiences for the entire community to enjoy.”

Museum executive director Allison Weiss thinks this particular exhibit says a lot about the contributions of refugees.

“There’s so much talk in the news now about refugees, and how many people we should let into the country, and what are they contributing,” Weiss said. “And I think this exhibit shows that there’s individuals behind the word refugees and they have all sorts of talents that maybe we’re not hearing about from the news.”

Dancing with colors

Alkarkhi works in maintenance at an apartment complex in Riverdale, Maryland. But at night and on the weekends, he can be found in front of a canvas set up in the living room of his small apartment.

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Iraqi artist Ahmad Alkarkhi paints a landscape at a park near his home in Riverdale, Maryland. VOA

“Painting for me [is] like music. Each painting, different music. I just tell myself, ‘Let me dance with colors on the canvas,'” he said.

Alkarkhi graduated from the University of Baghdad, College of Fine Arts. He was a well-known artist in Iraq until violence forced him to flee to Syria in 2006. But war came there, too. Once again, he was uprooted, relocating three years later to Riverdale with his wife and two children.

Alkarkhi said creating art is his way to give back to America for helping him and his family build a new life in safety.

“America gives refugees a lot of things. I want to do beautiful painting, and I give it to this country and to the people to enjoy with my art,” he said.

Alkarkhi is also painting his experiences as a refugee in his new color palette, as in his piece, “Colorful Horses.”

Also Read: Fear Rise of ‘Lost Generation’ as More Syrian Refugee Children Out of School

“These horses are like refugees. Some from Europe, some from Africa, some came from [the] Middle East. And they come here, they work together, live together, do many things together,” he explained.

“Then, after like 10, 20 years, everybody say I am American. And everybody try to do something good for this country.” (VOA)