Neanderthal Cave Art Suggests They Were Smarter Than We Thought

Does that mean a second human lineage could have developed technology?

Homo neanderthalensis, artist.

In a recent issue of Science, a research team led by Dirk Hoffmann of the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, reported a surprising finding. When they used uranium-thorium dating to determine the age of cave art from several locations in Spain, the paintings turned out to be 65,000 years old. This is highly significant, because it means the art was done at least 20,000 years before the first modern humans arrived. And that means Neanderthals, a human species that inhabited the region that is now Spain, must have drawn them.

Neanderthals are believed to have been stockier than modern humans, with shorter legs and bigger bodies. Many scientists also have considered Neanderthals kind of dumb, a less intelligent branch of the human family tree that eventually was replaced by the smarter and more agile Homo sapiens. Increased agility would have been a critical advantage after the ice ages ended and food became more available.

Neanderthal Cave Art Suggests They Were Smarter Than We Thought
A set of lines (center) in Spain's La Pasiega Cave, painted by Neanderthals was embellished by later artists.

The new study suggests that Neanderthals must have had quite a bit of brain power, at least enough to do cave paintings. At that time, 65,000 years ago, they may even have been similar to Homo sapiens in intelligence. Other artifacts previously found to be associated with Neanderthals, such as remnants indicating the systematic use of fire and stone ring constructions, lend support to this view.

So are we not that special, after all? Might there be another path to technological intelligence? In our latest book, The Cosmic Zoo: Complex Life on Many Worlds, William Bains and I argued that there were many paths to the evolution of complex life on Earth (and by extension, elsewhere in the universe), so it ought to be common in the galaxy. However, we also made the point that the pinnacle of complexity, technological intelligence, was only achieved once on our planet: with us.

The discovery by Hoffmann and colleagues of smart Neanderthals could change our thinking in this respect. Might the Neanderthals have achieved technological intelligence if they hadn’t gone extinct? Or maybe our own species was helped along in its evolution, considering that the gene pool of the two species mixed to some extent. We don’t know enough to say, and of course, Neanderthals and Homo sapiens share more than 99 percent of their DNA. But it’s still an intriguing question.