September 2, 2014
Cave Engravings Discovered In Gibraltar May Have Been Created By Neanderthals
Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
Neanderthals have a reputation for being unintelligent brutes, but the discovery of a series of lines scratched into a rock wall in southwestern Europe suggests that the predecessors of modern humans might have had the intelligence and creativity to produce cave art.
In research published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, experts from 11 different European institutions reported discovering the cross-hatched engravings that were similar in appearance to a hashtag. It is the Neanderthal-created artwork ever discovered, according to Sharon Begley of Reuters.
The marks were discovered deep within Gorham's Cave in Gibraltar, which overlooks the Mediterranean Sea, Begley noted. She described it as “eight partially crisscrossing lines with three shorter lines on the right and two on the left, incised on a shelf of bedrock jutting out from the wall about 16 inches (40 cm) above the cave floor.”
“The engraving is covered by undisturbed sediment that contains 294 previously discovered stone tools,” the Reuters reporter added. “They are in a style long known as the signature of Neanderthals, who had reached Europe from Africa some 300,000 years ago. Standard techniques had dated the tools at 39,000 years old, about when Neanderthals went extinct, meaning the art below it must be older.”
Modern humans had yet to reach the region where Gorham's Cave is located by that time, and the study authors eliminated the possibility that the engravings were made accidentally while the Neanderthals were cutting meat or animal skins. Rather, Begley said that the research team is confident that the engravings were made intentionally using a sharp stone tool, which would have required at least 54 strokes per line and over 300 for the entire pattern.
“It is the last nail in the coffin for the hypothesis that Neanderthals were cognitively inferior to modern humans,” rock art expert Paul Tacon from Griffith University in Australia, who was not involved in the study, told the Associated Press (AP). He added that the research suggests they were likely made for ritual purposes and/or to communicate with others.
“We will never know the meaning the design held for the maker or the Neanderthals who inhabited the cave but the fact that they were marking their territory in this way before modern humans arrived in the region has huge implications for debates about what it is to be human and the origin of art,” he added.
According to the Daily Mail, the researchers conducted a chemical analysis on the mineral coating on the grooves in the engraving, which led them to their conclusion that the art had been produced before the overlying sediment had been deposited.
The study authors then reduced the size of photographs to microscopic scale in order to see the tool marks within the engraving, and they then compared them with experimental marks that had been created using a variety of instruments. Ultimately, they concluded that the artwork had been made by repeatedly passing a robust cutting tip over the rock surface in the same direction, but not everyone is convinced that Neanderthals created it.
“Any discovery that helps improve the public image of Neanderthals is welcome. We know they spoke, lived in large social groups, looked after the sick, buried their dead and were highly successful in the ice age environments of northern latitudes. As a result rock engraving should be entirely within their grasp,” Clive Gamble, an archaeologist at the University of Southampton, told AP reporter Frank Jordans. “What is critical, however, is the dating. While I want Neanderthals to be painting, carving and engraving, I'm reserving judgment.”
However, Clive Finlayson, one of the study authors and the director of the heritage division at the Gibraltar Museum, said that he is convinced the engravings were created by Neanderthals. As he told Jordans via email, “All European Neanderthal fossil sites from this period, including Devil's Tower Rock Shelter just one mile from Gorham's Cave, have this technology associated. In contrast no modern human site in Europe has this type of technology. So we are confident that the tools were made by Neanderthals.”
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