Neanderthal cave painting claimed


August 07, 2021

A paper appearing in the journal  PNAS for August 17 of this year , authored by Pitch-Narti  et al  claims symbolic artwork by Neanderthals. The paper is in titled “The symbolic role of the underground world among Middle Paleolithic Neanderthals”.

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS)  requires authors to state the significance of their paper as well as an abstract of the paper itself. We include the Significance and Abstract of this paper below:


The emergence of symbolic behavior in our genus is a controversial issue. The dating of paintings in three caves from the Iberian Peninsula supports the view that Neanderthals developed a form of cave art more than 20,000 years before the emergence of anatomical modernity in Europe. In this study, we confirm that the paintings on a large speleothem from one of these sites, Cueva de Ardales, were human made, and we show that the pigments do not come from the outcrops of colorant material known inside the cave. Variations in the composition of the paint correspond to differences in the age of the paintings, supporting the hypothesis that Neanderthals used the speleothems symbolically over an extended time span.
Cueva de Ardales in Málaga, Spain, is one of the richest and best-preserved Paleolithic painted caves of southwestern Europe, containing over a thousand graphic representations. Here, we study the red pigment in panel II.A.3 of “Sala de las Estrellas,” dated by U-Th to the Middle Paleolithic, to determine its composition, verify its anthropogenic nature, infer the associated behaviors, and discuss their implications. Using optical microscopy, scanning electron microscopy coupled with energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy, micro-Raman spectroscopy, and X-ray diffraction, we analyzed a set of samples from the panel and compared them to natural coloring materials collected from the floor and walls of the cave. The conspicuously different texture and composition of the geological samples indicates that the pigments used in the paintings do not come from the outcrops of colorant material known in the cave. We confirm that the paintings are not the result of natural processes and show that the composition of the paint is consistent with the artistic activity being recurrent. Our results strengthen the hypothesis that Neanderthals symbolically used these paintings and the large stalagmitic dome harboring them over an extended time span.

Note that the Spanish team examined only one panel from a particular room in the cave complex.

It must be stated the use of symbolic art, i.e. cave paintings is highly controversial when attributed to Homo neanderthalensis. Some observers claim Neanderthals lacked the cognitive ability for symbolic expression. Other commentators have challenged the basic findings of this paper, claiming the pigmentation is indistinguishable from natural pigmentation.