When Alistair Pike was seven years old, growing up in England, his mother told him that if he dug far enough, he’d get to Australia. So he got to work digging a tunnel.
Although he didn’t quite reach his destination, he managed to dig down about six feet, where he came across the complete skeleton of a horse. Quite an achievement for a seven-year-old, but you could say that he’d only just scratched the surface.
Fascinated in nearly equal measure by science and archaeology, he followed a unique course in archaeological sciences at Bradford University, which equipped him to apply his knowledge of chemistry to gain an understanding of historical artifacts.
Early in his career, he was hanging from cables on London’s Battersea Bridge, chipping off paint samples with a hammer and a chisel to analyze the original paint. He was even admitted to the inner sanctums of the Palace of Westminster to look at historic paint layers, as well analyzing Queen Victoria’s bathing machine on the Isle of Wight.
About nine years ago, he began studying cave art, starting in Britain. Although there was much evidence of early humans in the British Isles, no one had come across the sorts of Paleolithic creations that early humans had applied to caves elsewhere in Europe. Then a colleague came across some engravings in a cave in Nottinghamshire, so he called in Pike to try and put a date on them.
“I noticed that these things were associated with very thin films of calcium carbonate that I knew we could date by looking at the radioactive decay of uranium,” explains Alistair. “So we scraped off some of these deposits and found that they were older than 12,000 years and matched the archaeology that had been dug out of the ground. Sure enough, it was Britain’s earliest and only Paleolithic cave art.”
The “uranium-thorium” dating method he applied in the British caves is based on the idea that seepage in the cave leaves behind the calcium carbonate film – known as calcite – as well as traces of naturally-occurring uranium. That uranium decays at a known rate, so it is possible to quite accurately state the age of the deposit. Since the deposit is on top of the artwork, at the very least, the minimum age of the artwork can be extrapolated from the dating method.
What isn’t possible is deciphering how long the artwork was there before the film deposit formed. Sometimes, however, it is possible to estimate the maximum age, if samples of the underlying surface can also be dated – such as, for example, when the seepage results in the formation of stalactites, which have then been painted.
Having demonstrated the utility of the dating method in Britain, Pike began looking at cave art in Spain. There was, he says, a “conundrum in the dating evidence” in the Spanish caves, because nothing discovered in Spain could be dated at more than 22,000 years, using the predominant radiocarbon dating method, whereas cave art in Southern France was much older – perhaps as old as 35,000 years.
“Either something was wrong with our dating methods, or there was something that stopped people with this tradition of painting from moving to Spain. But people argued against that on the basis of stylistic similarities. So people agreed that it was probably the dating methods that weren’t very good, and that seemed like a testable hypothesis.”
And then last summer, Pike discussed his findings in a paper published in Science Magazine. It caused a minor stir among paleontologists and attracted worldwide attention. He had taken samples from calcite he found on some red dots and hand stencils he found in a cave called El Castillo. These hand stencils, which are a recurring theme in early art, were probably made by blowing or spitting a mixture of red ochre pigment and water at a hand placed on the cave wall.
The dots would be made by a similar method of blowing or spitting the primitive paint. Using their uranium-thorium method, Pike and his colleagues concluded that the hand stencils were at least 37,300 years old, and one of the red dots was painted at least 40,800 years ago.
Those dates correspond to the very earliest traces of modern humans in that part of the world – but they are within a few years of the last traces of Neanderthals in the region – meaning, with the minimum age of the art fixed but the actual age unknown, that the dots and hand prints could conceivably have been made by Neanderthals.
Could it really be the case then that Neanderthals, who made simple tools but had never been linked to symbolic art, were the creators of the Northern Spain cave art? And if they were, what would that tell us about the level of sophistication of Neanderthals, and who may or may not have been learning what from whom 40,000 or so years ago?
The thing about symbolic art, as opposed to tools, is that it represents quite a different thinking process. And though we can’t know what these early artists were thinking, leaving your mark on a cave is not the same as making a club for hunting, or a blade for cutting, or even making a fire – clearly utilitarian behaviors that help you to survive.
That mark is there for others to see, even when you are not, or it communicates with spirits, or it perpetuates your existence long after you have moved on – in this case, more than 40,000 years after you have gone. Come to think of it, there’s hardly a paint manufactured today – by AkzoNobel or any other paint maker – that you would count on for 40,000 years.
Pike is much too careful to claim with any certainty that Neanderthals were the artists making the hand prints and dots in Northern Spain. But he leaves the strong impression that he believes it is the likeliest explanation. To start with, he points out, “the argument that these things appear so close to the arrival of humans means they equally could already have existed and been made by Neanderthals.” Then he explores the three most plausible explanations.
One is that humans arrived with the tradition of painting caves in their culture. But then, says Pike, you've got to ask a question: “Where are these pre-European paintings? The age of cave paintings in Africa is 15,000 years younger than what we find in Europe. So we begin to think, maybe it's something that arose in Europe.”
Humans in Africa almost certainly painted their bodies with ochre pigments 80,000 years ago, but they didn’t seem to paint caves. Simultaneous with the arrival of humans in Europe, he adds, they began making symbolic artifacts including three-dimensional sculptures and musical instruments. So perhaps, speculates Pike, “something about the European environment created an acceleration in cultural innovation. And the difference between Europe and Africa is the presence of Neanderthals in Europe. So it could have been a response to the increased competition for resources with Neanderthals.
The third hypothesis is that yes, while humans definitely painted, they may have just been continuing a tradition that was started by the Neanderthals. And the argument for that, apart from this unresolved dating issue, is that we do see evidence for symbolic behavior among the Neanderthals prior to the arrival of modern humans.
The Neanderthals buried their dead, used black manganese as a pigment, and based on the discovery of perforated sea shells, it is likely that they used the shells to adorn their bodies. “They are not doing anything very different from what the humans were doing in Africa,” says Pike. “So it’s not that they didn’t have the cognitive ability or the social need to create something symbolic.”
So is it possible that Neanderthals have been getting a bad rap, and just had the bad luck to have lost out – for reasons we’ll never know – to our human ancestors? “Absolutely,” adds Pike. “What we are seeing is a level of sophistication in Neanderthals that wouldn’t look out of place among modern humans.
“In terms of their cognitive abilities, we wouldn't notice any difference. I suspect that if Neanderthals had persisted they would have gone on to paint all the elaborate figurative art that modern humans eventually did. It was just that they weren't able to cope with whatever it was about their circumstances that changed around the time that modern humans appeared.”
Whatever else, Pike clearly has a soft spot in his heart for the much-maligned Neanderthals. “I think the reason we think of Neanderthals as knuckle-dragging cavemen is because of some very bad 1960s films and some Victorian ideas about human evolution.”