Art: Not Just For Humans Anymore

Popular depiction of Neanderthals typically yields the same results: cultureless, brooding individuals confining themselves to caves. Consider the Geico cavemen, Night at the Museum, The Croods. This interpretation is so universal that calling someone a Neanderthal implies low intellect and lack of class. However, recent evidence suggests that Neanderthals partook in more refined activities than we tend to give them credit for.

In the known Neanderthal site of Gorham’s Cave in Gibraltar, anthropologists have discovered what is considered the first identified piece of Neanderthal art. Shown in this video, the etching may not seem like art when compared to cave paintings created by early Homo sapiens, but anthropologists state that compared to other marks in Neanderthal habitats, these lines represent a deliberate pattern. Although Neanderthal jewelry has been found before, this art is considered especially symbolic and potentially indicates that Neanderthals had some sort of language or writing system.

The article also notes the similarities between this piece of art and the earliest art of modern humans. Both are simple geometric patterns which most likely had symbolic relevance. If early humans and Neanderthals alike had similar artistic abilities, this should serve as evidence against so-called primitive nature of Neanderthals. How, then, does this fit into the theory that humans out-competed Neanderthals for the same environmental niche due to “their superior cognitive abilities?” In a Huffington Post article ( University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Harold Dibble argues that one piece of evidence should not serve to undermine previous theories regarding Neanderthal culture. Is the question, then, one of quantity? At what point is there “enough” evidence to support this new theory of Neanderthal symbolism?

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35 Responses to Art: Not Just For Humans Anymore

  1. gatorade15 says:

    Interesting post, gwuw2014! If in fact Neanderthals were almost on par with homo sapiens in terms of intelligence, this would help strengthen evolutionary theory even further. Neanderthals were the last near human primates to live on this Earth, eventually dying out and leaving the planet for homo sapiens to take over. If these neanderthals were quite intelligent, that means that we are not a completely separate creature but rather an ancestor, a descendant of neanderthals. By natural selection, the smartest neanderthals would have the best chance of survival, passing on their genes to subsequent offspring, eventually forming an entire new species, homo sapien. This idea also takes a stab at creationism: this theory would make us related to neanderthals, and all of the predecessor species as well, linking us to many different animals and making us less unique, just part of a very long lineage.
    So to answer your question, gwuw2014, I think that its difficult to quantify Neanderthal intelligence accurately because it was probably constantly changing. Like I said earlier, the smartest individuals ultimately ended up becoming a new species, homo sapiens. I think it is more appropriate to say that Neanderthal symbolism and intelligence most likely increased as time passed. What do you guys think? Do you think that all Neanderthals were of equal intelligence or were some smarter than others?

    • gwuw2014 says:

      Good answer, gatorade15! I definitely agree with you that Neanderthal intelligence increased as their minds developed and evolved. However, I think that the most commonly supported theory of ancestry is that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens evolved from a common ancestor, Homo heidelbergensis, rather than Neanderthals directly giving rise to modern humans. But with the evidence of human and Neanderthal cohabitation and reproduction, could it be that the most intelligent Neanderthals were most likely to live with Homo sapiens?

      • waterbottle19 says:

        The debate over where Neanderthals fall on the family tree in regards to homo sapiens is extremely fascinating to me. It is essentially an argument over what the definition of a species is. Some consider neanderthals a subspecies of humans! Unlike other species, neanderthals and humans could interbreed and produce non-sterile offspring. It is estimated that between 1-4% of our DNA comes from Neanderthals. In fact, this is the main proponent of the interbreeding hypothesis over the disappearance of Neathderthals. The hypotheses asserts that the disappearance of neanderthals is credited to being absorbed into the homo sapien population through interbreeding.

    • sm4321 says:

      That’s an interesting idea, gatorade15. I think in answer to your second question we should be able to quite comfortably say that some Neanderthals were smarter than others. I make this claim simply by looking at modern circumstance. Not all homo sapiens are of the same intelligence, so this would lead us to think that the same was true for the Neanderthals. I think that your comments leading up to your questions are accurate and display support for the idea of the art work noting intelligence and links the neanderthals to homo sapiens. This in general supports evolution and disproves creationism. The symbols and intelligence almost definitely increased over time, allowing this meaning displayed in the art work.

    • gatorade15- Your inference that we, Homo Sapiens, are “descendant of neanderthals” is very interesting, unfortunately, it is not correct. As stated by the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, ( we are rather relative. Based on the theory of natural selection, H. Sapiens had a survival advantage over neanderthals. Considering that neanderthals had control over fire, what did we have that increased our chances of survival and thus reproduction? This article ( provides an interesting question, did humans interbreed with neanderthals? In 2010 a study published in Science magazine determined that Neanderthal DNA is 99.7 percent identical to modern human DNA (a chimp’s is 99.8 percent identical). What does this finding state about our relationship with our closest relatives?

      • gatorade15 says:

        Thank you for the articles californiarepublic79! So based on what I read there, it would be better to say that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals are very close relatives, connected by a common ancestor from which we stemmed off into two separate species. One line was of Neanderthals, and the other, Homo sapiens. Sound about right?

  2. collegeblogger19 says:

    Great article, gwuw2014! It’s always interesting to learn about new scientific evidence being discovered. I think the discovery of this piece of ancient art is fascinating, and it really gives insight into our ancient past with neanderthals. The repetitive strokes found in the cave may tell us that neanderthals did indeed have similar cognitive abilities to homo sapiens, as the scientists who discovered it claim. However, I think it is important to regard such new findings with hesitation. The world of science cannot blindly accept new evidence, which is why I think skeptics of this discovery are important in forwarding the research done with this new art piece. Additional intellectual or artistic findings from the neanderthals would definitely strengthen this argument, and then we could look further into the issue of how homo sapiens out-competed neanderthals if they both possessed similar cognitive abilities.

    I agree with gatorade15’s post above that neanderthal intelligence was most likely changing–and probably at an increasing rate. Similar to the human population today, there were probably neanderthal individuals who were brighter, smarter, or more creative than others–which would lead to the evolution of the mind and brain. Intelligence is a difficult concept to measure, but comparing the intelligence of neanderthals and homo sapiens might give us a glimpse of the past as to how we are related.

    • gwuw2014 says:

      Good point, collegeblogger19. Since this discovery is both unprecedented and very recent, I’m sure that excitement is playing a large part in the theories suggested. Of course, as greyelephant1 says below, one piece isn’t enough to completely debunk one theory or completely prove another.

  3. greyelephant1 says:

    I like this article gwuw2014! I agree with you, Gatorade15 in your thoughts that this could prove humans are indeed descendants from the many different species. I also agree that with such little evidence, it is hard to determine how much it proves. As the articles believe, the etching proves that Neanderthal’s were quite intelligent species. The ‘art’ itself is hard to decipher. With such little to go off of, it is hard to make too many assumptions. That being said, this means that in order for the general consensus to become that Neanderthal’s really are as intelligent as the drawing depicts them to be, we need more of them. Quantity matters when it comes to evidence. As for gatorade15’s question, I think it is too hard to tell whether Neanderthals were really of equal intelligence. Even with one million pieces of Neanderthal art, it will be hard to determine their intelligence level in comparison to ours because there are not any live Neanderthals to compare our intelligence level to.

    • greyelephant1 says:

      gatorade15, I apologize I misread your question. I thought you meant compared to humans. But in terms to your actual question, I agree with sm4321 and collegeblogger19 in that intelligence level varies in the species, but by natural selection, the smarter ones are more likely to survive.

  4. waterbottle19 says:

    I believe in this specific case, yes it is a question of quantity. There are too many unknowns to jump to conclusions about the art. While it could possibly be the work of a Neanderthal, I disagree that it signifies a deeper intellect. As gwuw2014 stated, it does resemble early human art, but we cannot tell if it signifies inllectual advancement with just one example. In comparison, human art exhibits advancements in intellect through increasingly complex art: from simple geometric shapes to cave paintings to what we have today. Rather than jumping to conclusions, I think the scientific community should engage in discourse over the legitimacy of the find first. Scientific consensus arguing that this find is legitimate proof of the intellectual power of neanderthals would be very powerful.

    • graduallychanging says:

      waterbottle19, I agree. In this scenario, quantity is of utmost importance. In Kate Wong’s article, “Ancient Engraving Strengthens Case for Sophisticated Neandertals”, she states that some people will argue that this artwork was a ”one-off event.” Although it seems that she believes that this new evidence points towards a new image of Neanderthals, she is stating that we would need to document more cases in order for the idea to be accepted widely in the scientific community. Even if it were a “one-off event,” do you think that it would still impact our view of Neanderthal culture.

  5. gwuw2014 says:

    Interesting reaction, waterbottle19. I believe that the reason scientists claim that this piece represents a previously unknown level of Neanderthal intellect relies on their comparison of this site to other known Neanderthal sites that completely lack any form of artwork, which would represent an advancement in intellect.

  6. thinkbrush says:

    I think this is really open to interpretation. Art is relative and to the Homo Neanderthalis, this could have been the pinnacle of culture and sophistication and it also could just be the last surviving piece of a broad array of visual art. I think it’s important to look at this discovery alongside other pre-historic art in order to better understand the methods and goals of this art but at some point, it has to stand alone and bear analysis. Perhaps the fact that this is an outlier suggests that there is still much to learn and perhaps too much lost to fully understand the Homo Neanderthalis.

    • sm4321 says:

      I think that this is an interesting idea, thinkbrush. Further work in this field would help us to outline the work of Neanderthals, but I do not think that it is in the best interests of scientists to just remark this as an outlier and not look any further into it. Even if it is an outlier, I think it bears scientific value to discover why this outlier occurred and what is behind it. It could lead to further findings in this field or other ones.

  7. sm4321 says:

    I think that what others (waterbottle19, greyelephant1) have articulated about the quantity of the work is something we should consider in our decision making process. I also think that many of the specific comments that have been stated above, such as attention to legitimacy (waterbottle19) are also important to consider. What would be the result if it was ultimately discovered that the work was not that of neanderthals but rather the work of the earliest homo sapiens? How would this change the subject matter and the conversation? How would this change thoughts of evolution or even creationism?

    • gwuw2014 says:

      interesting idea, sm4321, but I think it’s important to point out that all evidence, as mentioned in the article, indicates that modern humans had definitely not made it to Gibraltar by the time at which the carving was made. But science has been proven wrong before! Maybe in the future evidence will surface that the etchings were made by modern humans and the dating, either of the carving itself or of human migration, was wrong. Or maybe more Neanderthal etchings will show up. For now, we just have to wait and see!

      • sm4321 says:

        Indeed! Do you have any opinion on my other questions posed gwuw2014?

      • gwuw2014 says:

        sm4321 – I think that if the work did end up being from Homo sapiens, the conversation would shift to a discussion of why humans were still creating such simplistic art so late in their timeline.

    • Sm4321- Even though it is unlikely that it turns out this site belonged to H. Sapiens (anthropologists are very careful about the studies and conclusions they report on, being that they are aware other’s will test it out and if it turns out to be false, they will lose credibility) it will only conclude that H. Sapiens were smarter and that increased their opportunity for survival. This whole debate has been about survival was determined by smartness. And my opinion on this is yes.

      • gwuw2014 says:

        californiarepublic79 – definitely agree that survival is equally a test of fitness and intelligence. Anthropologists do seem certain that this site can be attributed to Neanderthals and not Homo sapiens, but a large part of science is keeping an open mind to new evidence. As I said in my response to sm4321, we’ll see what the future holds!

    • greyelephant1 says:

      Very interesting question you raise sm4321. I personally would be less surprised if it was discovered that the work was from homo sapiens, only because they are known ancestors of ours. I find it less surprising to see similar intelligence levels in homo sapiens than in Neanderthals but in the end, the difference does not seem to be big in my opinion.

  8. I really enjoyed this post gwuw2014. This discovery opens discussion to many different ideas within the theory of evolution. As the article that accompanies the video discusses, I wonder how we consider something to be ‘art’. I question the validity of considering this ‘complex engraving’ a masterpiece. If this is considered complex enough to require high level thinking, then this is a big step in understanding the intelligence level of Neanderthals and how they communicated through simple actions or engravings such as this one. In regard to your question, “Do you think that all Neanderthals were of equal intelligence or were some smarter than others?”, I do believe that due to different environments and living conditions some had better logic and reasoning to survive and live longer lives. Quantifying intelligence is a difficult tasks and this also brings into the conversation, the idea of nature versus nurture. In modern times, there’s still debate over which is more valid in regards to how intellectual a person can become and how personality traits emerge. We can use Neanderthals as a way of examining the primitive understanding of humans and how they differ across different humans.

    • lumastan says:

      I understand your point that perhaps these carvings are not a masterpiece (though art is inherently subjective to taste), I dont really find the need to question whether intelligence was equal among neanderthals, as there is no such thing as an equally intelligent/strong/healthy race over the board; no two humans share the same level of whatever intelligence might be described as.

    • moneytrees3001 says:

      While art appreciation is a matter of taste, the definition of art that I believe this article uses is a man-made thing, created with some artistic intent or purpose. It doesn’t matter if the art is pretty or not, just that the creator made it to represent something, evoke emotion, or express themselves. So when we look at ancient creations like this that don’t seem to have served any practical purpose, we can assume it was a piece of art.

  9. arcanium82 says:

    This is a very interesting article gwuw2014. This seems to present a very good argument that Neanderthals were indeed somewhat intelligent and had some concept of the abstract. The word “intelligent” has had many definitions over the years but most of them include the capacity for logic, abstract thought, communication, self-awareness, learning and planning. It was long thought that humans were the only intelligent beings on earth, so all of the attributes of intelligence were reserved for us. While “intelligence” was used for humans, the word “cognition” was used for animals. However, as more scientific discoveries are made the gap between intelligence and cognition is getting smaller.

    We now know that many animals have the ability to communicate. Not only communicate, but they have language:

    African elephants have a very robust memory. It is claimed that they never forget anything throughout their entire lives. In fact, the survival of the herd depends on the matriarch’s memory and ability to recall the locations of watering holes many years, even decades, after she originally visited them.

    And for the big whammy, there is also research which shows that dolphins are self-aware:

    Art is something that has long been thought to be exclusive among humans. This discovery challenges that notion. This is another example of “human intelligence” and “animal cognition” growing closer together. Eventually we will have to admit that humans are not quite as special and unique in the animal kingdom as we once thought.

    • gwuw2014 says:

      Very interesting! How willing do you think a lot of people are, though, to admit just how close we are to other animals. It seems characteristic of humans to assume that we have evolved away from nature, and how often do we try to break away from the “otherness” of the world around us?

      • glowcloud says:

        That’s a very interesting point! I think that’s a big reason why natural selection is as controversial as it is. People really don’t want to see themselves as related to animals. I agree that we have created a sort of separation between our world (as humans) and the “natural world”. My question is, taking into consideration that humans are products of evolution and are, in essence, animals, isn’t everything we create technically a part of the natural world?

  10. cfc0567owls says:

    Interesting blog post gwu2014. This recent discovery, I believe, should not change our perception of Neanderthal’s too much. At the end of the Hall of Human Origins, there was a display board comparing and contrasting humans with Neanderthals, which I just so happened to take a picture of. The last thing in the Neanderthals’ column says, “made symbolic objects on rare occasions” whereas under humans it says, “created art, ritual, and a complex symbolic world.” We know that the Neanderthals maintained some capacity for symbols, but it was nothing compared to what humans at the same time could accomplish. The most striking differences that the display listed were that humans “built broad social networks” and “exchanged resources over wide areas” while Neanderthals “made effective use of local resources” and “hunted, scavenged, and at plants”. When they existed at the same time, humans were far superior in our cognitive capacities than Neanderthals. This, as gatorade said previously, would appear to support the theory of evolution by natural selection.

  11. sunny2018 says:

    I think these discoveries say a lot about the beginning of culture within the Homo genus, but shouldn’t heavily alter our views of Neanderthals. We have often associated them with cave drawings that depict their day to day to lives. The ability to make markings on walls does not necessarily prove that Neanderthals are less primitive than initially believed–they occasionally made art, but Homo sapiens and early ancestors utilized art and symbolism far more often and in far more complex ways, as noted in the Smithsonian’s Hall of Human Origins.

  12. serrobert says:

    I agree with what many said earlier that there are too many unknowns for us to make any conclusions about the artwork or even the general intellect of Neanderthals. Perhaps Neanderthals had a whole culture that discouraged art and creativity, we don’t know.

  13. macnplease says:

    One of our strongest habits as a race is to make stereotypes and cling to them desperately. In the case of Neanderthals, our perspective of their simplicity and animalistic tendencies is probably wrong in several ways; we simply cannot ever know their true nature except educated guesses based off of fossil evidence and, when we occasionally get lucky, findings such as this that allow for new conjecture as to the reality of the character of the Neanderthal.

  14. lumastan says:

    It has baffled me why this air of stupidity has always surrounded Neanderthals, to such an extent we even call people that behave in a less-civilized manner as neanderthals. This article really interests me because it helps educate the populous on what neanderthals really were. They were not this missing link between man and monkey, but rather another type of us. They were different, but not necessarily less than us. In fact, many modern humans have Neanderthal ancestry, particularly those from Eurasia. The art may not fall under our perceptions on what art is or should have been, but like homo sapiens at the time, it was a time of the birth of what it meant to be a civilized and intelligent species.

    Though I understand your point, Sunny2018, that art does not inherently correlate to intelligence, based on the much smaller scale by which neanderthals created art in comparison to homo sapiens, the capacity to create art, the mere capacity, shows the departure from primitiveness.

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