Neanderthals, extinct human cousins who left genetic traces in modern people, seem to have vanished from Europe around 40,000 years ago. That was around the time early modern humans arrived. (See:“Neanderthals Died Out About 10,000 Years Earlier Than Thought, With Help From Modern Humans.”)
Among the advantages that may have allowed those new arrivals to out-compete the Neanderthals were symbolic thought and language. But the cross-hatched cave carving, reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, points to art and symbolic thought among Neanderthals as well. (Related: “Why Am I Neanderthal?”)
“Originally, we could not quite believe what we had found and had to convince ourselves it was real,” says Gibraltar Museum director Clive Finlayson, who headed the study team. “Is it art? Is it a doodle? I don’t know, but it is clearly an abstract design.”
When Neanderthals lived inside what is now Gorham’s Cave, the site of the discovery, the region was rich with prey, mostly deer, but also predators such as hyenas. The researchers discovered the engraving in excavations on a small ledge nearly 330 feet (100 meters) into the cave.
“We can definitely say it is more than 39,000 years old, a time when there were no modern humans near Gibraltar,” Finlayson says. A soil layer above the bedrock ledge contains Neanderthal tools, the team reports, and chemical analysis of the carving’s patina points to its age.
“I think that this will stir up an extremely lively controversy, and people will no doubt argue,” says paleoanthropologist Gilliane Monnier of the University of Minnesota, an expert on ancient stone tools. She thinks it’s likely that the engraving is the work of Neanderthals, and agrees it dates to their era.
Monnier adds by email, “This is a very legitimate claim, on the authors’ part.”
Read More at NatGeo.