Thursday, February 9, 2012


1. Three of the recently discovered seal drawings in Nerja Cave.
A story appeared in today’s news proclaiming that the first examples of Neandertal cave art have been discovered in the Nerja Caves along the south coast of Spain.  These caves started forming 5 million years ago. Human occupation of the cave begins about 25,000 years ago and the oldest cave art in the cave is about  21,000 years old. 

The newly discovered paintings consist of a series of six figures drawn in red pigment on a stalactite.  These relatively crude images are interpreted as being of seals, which would have been a food source available at that time along that Nerja coast.  Unspecified organic residue found next to the paintings has been tested and yields a date of 42,3000 to 45,300.  If this date is correct, it predates the oldest cave art at Chauvet Cave by over 10,000 years. 

This date is older than the otherwise oldest human remains or artifacts in the Nerja cave and is within the time frame of the existence of Neandertals. Thus, the claim is being made that this is Neandertal artwork, the first such found anywhere in the world.  It would suggest Neandertals had  more complex intellectual abilities than previously thought.  So this might be a very important discovery.  Might be.  

2. A powerfully built Neandertal skeleton.

 Who Were The Neandertals?

Neandertals are fossil humans that ranged across Europe and the Middle East, eastward possibly as far as the Ural Mountains. Geologically, they lasted about 100,000 years (135,000 – 30,000 years ago).  Their skeletons were more robust than those of modern humans.  Neandertals reached an adult height of between 60 and 66 inches. They were not the caveman brutes of popular imagery. Neandertals are known to have made stone tools and weapons, build structures, control fire, and skin animals.  They lived in complex social groups.  The morphology of the hyoid bone in Neandertals, the bone that anchors tongue muscles to the larynx, is nearly identical to that in modern humans, suggesting that they may have been able to produce a wide range of sounds.  Although Neandertals built dwellings out of mammoth skulls, tusks, and bones, they also frequently lived in caves.

Neandertals are often classified as their own species, Homo neanderthalensis.  However, recent sequencing of the neandertal mitochondrial genome indicates that between  1-4% of modern human genes are inherited from neandertals, suggesting that there was limited interbreeding between H. neanderthalensis and H. sapiens.

The Nerja Cave And The Artwork In Question

Although the Nerja caves were occupied by primitive humans, their modern rediscovery occurred in 1959.  The caves have since been extensively developed for tourism.  One area, the Hall of the Ballet ,has 100 seats permanently installed in the cave floor and is the site for concerts and dance performances.  Much of the cave art is in other areas of the cave that requires specialized caving techniques to get to, although “spelunking tourism” goes to those areas.  The news stories do not say where in the cave the new artwork was found.

3. No caving skills required! Stairs, lights, and concrete walkways make  a visit to Nerja Cave easy and convenient.
Although the image of artwork is striking, there are some troubling questions about the discovery.  First, the date is for unspecified “organic material” found near the artwork, not of the artwork itself.  The organics may well be 43,000 years old but they may have no relationship to the artwork.  Second, the artwork is done in red pigment, which is the iron oxide hematite, a naturally occuring mineral frequently used in cave art (as we have seen for Lascaux).  Hematite is not an “organic substance” which further suggests that the organics dated have nothing to do the artwork.  Although the story says that dating of the artwork is a future goal, there is nothing in hematite that can be dated. 

Most telling however is the appearance of the artwork on the surface of the stalactite.  It is a strong red color and appears to be on the surface.  However, stalactites grow as water drips in the cave, runs down the stalactite, and deposits calcium carbonate minerals as the water evaporates.  The crispness of the seal drawings suggests that there has been no stalagtite growth for the last 40,000 years.  While this is remotely possible, it is not likely.  Moisture can be seen on other stalagtites in the photo, so growth is still going on in that very part of the cage. One would expect artwork as old as claimed to be less distinct because of overgrowth by calcite. Finally, the story appears to be based on a press release and there is no indication that the find has been through rigorous peer review and publication in a scientific journal, where some of these questions would be raised and answered.

The discovery of incontrovertible Neandertal cave art would be both fascinating and important. Are the seals of Nerja Cave neandertal paintings?  It seems the evidence presented to date is equivocal and the jury is still out.   Hopefully future work will provide a definitive answer. 



1. Tim Worden.  The oldest work of art ever: 42,000-year-old paintings of seals found in Spanish caves. The Mail OnLine.

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