Monday, February 26, 2018


Scientists have found the first major evidence that Neanderthals, rather than modern humans, created the world's oldest known cave paintings - suggesting they may have had an artistic sense similar to our own.

A new study led by the University of Southampton and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology shows that paintings in three caves in Spain were created more than 64,000 years ago - 20,000 years before modern humans arrived in Europe.

This means that the Palaeolithic (Ice Age) cave art - including pictures of animals, dots and geometric signs - must have been made by Neanderthals, a 'sister' species to Homo sapiens, and Europe's sole human inhabitants at the time. It also indicates that they thought symbolically, like modern humans.

Published today in the journal Science, the study reveals how an international team of scientists used a state-of-the-art technique called uranium-thorium dating to fix the age of the paintings as more than 64,000 years.

Until now, cave art has been attributed entirely to modern humans, as claims to a possible Neanderthal origin have been hampered by imprecise dating techniques. However, uranium-thorium dating provides much more reliable results than methods such as radiocarbon dating, which can give false age estimates. Joint lead author Dr Chris Standish, an archaeologist at the University of Southampton, said: "This is an incredibly exciting discovery which suggests Neanderthals were much more sophisticated than is popularly believed.

"Our results show that the paintings we dated are, by far, the oldest known cave art in the world, and were created at least 20,000 years before modern humans arrived in Europe from Africa - therefore they must have been painted by Neanderthals." A team of researchers from the UK, Germany, Spain and France analysed more than 60 carbonate samples from three cave sites in Spain - La Pasiega (north-eastern Spain), Maltravieso (western Spain) and Ardales (south-western Spain).

All three caves contain red (ochre) or black paintings of groups of animals, dots and geometric signs, as well as hand stencils, hand prints and engravings. According to the researchers, creating the art must have involved such sophisticated behavior as the choosing of a location, planning of light source and mixing of pigments.

"We have examples in three caves 700km apart, and evidence that it was a long-lived tradition. It is quite possible that similar cave art in other caves in Western Europe is of Neanderthal origin as well."

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On army land at Larkhill close to Stonehenge, a team of archaeologists believe they may have discovered a site where some of the architects of Stonehenge gathered and camped. A team investigating a causewayed enclosure - thought to be ancient meeting places or centers of trade - found an alignment of posts that matches the orientation of the circle at Stonehenge, leading to the theory that Larkhill could have been some sort of blueprint for the temple.

Si Cleggett, of Wessex Archaeology, concedes it is possible to suggest that any evidence of prehistoric settlement could be connected to the creation of Stonehenge, but argues that the close proximity of Larkhill and the coincidence of the alignment of the nine posts gives weight to the idea that the people who created and visited the enclosure could have had a hand in the conceptualisation of Stonehenge.

The first version of Stonehenge was built in around 3,000 BCE as a simple circular ditch and bank with upright timber posts. The stones began to arrive around 500 years later. Cleggett's team believes the causewayed enclosure was built between 3,750 and 3,650 BCE.

Cleggett says: "The causewayed enclosure at Larkhill was constructed during the late Stone Age, a period of transition when our ancestors gradually moved away from a mobile hunter-gatherer lifestyle and embraced a farming existence. My contention is there is a fair chance the people who met at the causewayed enclosure could have been the architects of the Stonehenge landscape as we understand it. That nine post alignment could be an early blueprint for the laying out of the stones at Stonehenge."

Edited from The Guardian (2 February 2018)
[3 images


Footprints preserved in the Sand Sea of Namibia from about 1,500 years ago were made by a small group of children - some as young as three years - walking across a drying mud surface after a flock of sheep or goats, in the company of slightly older children and perhaps young adolescents.

Trusted to care for animals from an early age, the children's tracks also reveal playful hops, skips, and jumps. Children possibly as young as one or two years left footprints at a site in Southern Ethiopia. They probably belonged to the extinct species Homo heidelbergensis (600,000 to 200,000 years ago), and occur next to adult prints and an abundance of animal tracks congregated around a small, muddy pool.

Stone tools and the butchered remains of a hippo were also found. These were all soon covered by an ash flow from a nearby volcano dated to 700,000 years ago.

A wealth of ethnographic evidence from modern, culturally distinct human societies shows babies and children are often expected to contribute to activities that support the mother, and the wider family group, according to their abilities. In many societies, small boys tend to help with herding, while young girls are preferred as babysitters. Interestingly, adult tools - like axes, knives, machetes, even firearms - are often freely available to children as part of learning.

There may be little time or space to simply be a child, in the sense that we would recognize. The roughly 7,000-year-old Monte Hermoso Human Footprint Site in Argentina contains predominantly the small tracks of children and women, preserved in coastal sediments. It has been suggested that the children may have played an important role in gathering seafood or coastal resources. Similarly, most of the 15,000-year-old tracks in the carved and painted Tuc d'Audoubert Cave in France are those of children, who may have been present when the figures were drawn.

Edited from PhysORG (13 February 2018)
[2 images, 1 drawing, 1 map]