Neaderthals lived in Europe and parts of the Middle East approximately between 200,000 and 30,000 years ago. We’re discovering that they are more like modern humans than we previously thought they could be. How to Think Like a Neanderthal gives a good overview of what we currently know. Neanderthals were social, cooperative, family-oriented, planned ahead, and displayed mechanical skills. They made tools, wore clothes, used fire, and possessed some form of language.
The fact that they possessed language, no matter how simple it may have been, is interesting. Language is a symbolic communication system. In the strictest sense, a symbol is a (sometimes arbitrary) mark, sign, or sound that is understood to represent some other thing. If Neanderthals had language then they must have been capable of thinking in symbols.
They were capable of thinking in symbols, but did they create art? They certainly made artifacts. They made stone and composite tools; we have evidence of fire-making. We also have indications of artifacts that we can intuit no useful purpose for: lines carved in stone; lines incised in avian bone (raven’s wing with seven regularly spaced notches). We can’t say that these markings were symbolic, but we can say they were most definitely done purposefully.
We know that they gathered pigments (black manganese dioxide and red ochre), but we don’t know if it was for what might have been body art or for what may have been medicinal purposes. The evidence for painting is slight. One contender for a potential Neanderthal cave painting exists in Spain. It shows a series of mandorla shapes with lines drawn across them. These works are dated to the time and location where Neanderthals may have coexisted with early Modern Humans, so it may end up not being work by Neanderthals at all.
It’s still possible, it may even be likely, but we currently have no conclusive proof that Neanderthals created anything that modern Western culture would recognize as art.
Neanderthal art resources:
- How to Think Like a Neanderthal by Thomas Wynn and Frederick L. Coolidge
- World’s Oldest Cave Art Found — Made by Neanderthals?
- Were Neanderthals really artists?
- A Shocking Find in a Neanderthal Cave in France
- Neanderthal artist revealed in a finely carved raven bone
- Ice age fashion showdown: Neanderthal capes versus human hoodies