Long believed less intelligent than modern humans, the Neanderthals made cave paintings in Spain at least 20,000 years before their human cousins appeared in Europe, according to an article in Science magazine, and other media reports.
The Neanderthals' paintings at three Spanish sites are at least 64,000 years old, based on uranium-thorium dating of calcium carbonate deposits, researchers said. The accompanying photo shows a ladder-like image with vertical and horizontal lines.
The discovery of the Neanderthals' paintings shows that they were capable of abstract, symbolic thought. That means they might have used language, according to a New York Times article.
The mainly red and black images, the oldest dated cave paintings in the world, include representations of various animals, linear signs, geometric shapes, hand stencils, and handprints, Science reported.
"Thus, Neanderthals possessed a much richer symbolic behavior than previously assumed," the magazine concludes.
After sharing the earth with humans for thousands of years, the Neanderthals disappeared about 40,000 years ago, possibly killed by their human cousins. Earlier research found interbreeding among humans and Neanderthals, and their DNA remains in our bodies.
Humans later did more elaborate cave paintings of animals, and their symbolic cognitive ability led to writing, religion, painting, and increasingly complex technology. It also brought prejudice and ideological and scientific abuses. Perhaps tribalism, the flip side of symbolic thought, led to the Neanderthals' demise.
The interactions between Neanderthals and humans remain mysterious. Did Neanderthals once rule, to be overthrown by humans? Were they victims of disease, environmental disruptions, or human warfare against them? Or did they disappear through interbreeding with humans?
Their cave paintings show they were very much like us.