History: the Oldest Work of Art in the World

Mozelle Martin

I've been researching ancient DNA (aDNA) for over a decade. As an abstract grunge artist, even I have wondered about the Neanderthal civilization and if they ever created any artwork. Although their behavior morphed according to time and place, their art was more abstract than the stereotypical "cave drawings" we are inundated with whenever researching this topic.

Homo sapiens are believed to have evolved from Africa approximately 315,000+ years ago. By comparison, the Neanderthal populations of Europe have been successfully traced back by science to at least 400,000 years ago.

Turns out that science has revealed that the Neanderthals were using minerals for paints as early as 250,000 years ago. For example, they used ochre and manganese to make red and black paints (dyes) to color their body and clothing.

Research by  Palaeolithic archaeologists in the 1990s  fundamentally changed the beliefs of the common Neanderthal. Instead of continuing to believe they were stupid or dumb due to their oddly-large brain size, scientists now know the Neanderthals had the capacity to understand languages.... and create art.

Ironically, scientists still don't understand why the Neanderthals strayed away from their safety and security to the dangerous depths of food scarcity and no drinkable water. Their only possible reasoning is that it was due to the fact that Neanderthals were a very nomadic close-knit group of people. One thing scientists do believe is that Neanderthal art had a substantial meaning and was not just proof of their journeys.

As an aside... for their nomadic lifestyle, they made rock shelters and camped along the banks of water sources, such as rivers. While traveling, they used embers for light and they even used homemade spears to capture and butcher their meat.

The evolution of Neanderthals’ visual culture over time suggests they increasingly enhanced their skills at creating and using mineral pigments to decorate their bodies and articles of clothing. As he elaborates in his book, Homo Sapiens Rediscovered, Paul Pettit states, "Neanderthals adorned their bodies perhaps as competition for group leadership became more sophisticated. Colors and ornaments conveyed messages about strength and power, helping individuals convince their contemporaries of their strength and suitability to lead."

Scientists now know that approximately 65,000 years ago Neanderthals used red mineral dyes to paint the interior walls of caves in Spain. At least in one cave, Ardales, in southern Spain, they even used bright white. They even drew around their hands (like many of us did in elementary school) in the Maltravieso cave of West Spain. Finally, in at least one cave in northern Spain, one of their members created a rectangle by pressing their dyed fingers repeatedly against the wall.

Although nobody knows what the specific meanings of these "designs" were, it does show that the culture itself was becoming more imaginative and creative.

Then, approximately 50,000 years ago, Neanderthals used personal ornaments to accessorize their bodies. Although this was done with carnivore teeth and bone fragments to make jewelry, it was likely done as a way to communicate status or in some way, communicate. Neanderthals independently produced varieties of non-figurative art roughly 10,000 years before the Homo sapiens arrived in Europe. So far, no evidence exists that Neanderthals ever painted figurative art (that of people, places, animals, or things) because as of approximately 37,000 years ago, it was Homo sapiens that did so. Unlike Homo sapiens though, the Neanderthals used visual art as a way to strengthen messages about each other through their own bodies instead of depictions of items.

Author Pettit stated, "It may be significant that our own species didn’t produce images of animals or anything else until after the Neanderthals, Denisovans and other human groups had become extinct. Nobody had use for it in the biologically mixed Eurasia of 300,000 to 40,000 years ago. But in Africa, a variation on this theme was emerging. Our early ancestors were using their own pigments and non-figurative marks to begin referring to shared emblems of social groups such as repeated clusters of lines – specific patterns. Their art appears to have been less about individuals and more about communities, using shared signs such as those engraved onto lumps of ochre in Blombos cave in South Africa, like tribal designs. Ethnicities were emerging, and groups – held together by social rules and conventions – would be the inheritors of Eurasia."

Oldest Neanderthal ArtPhoto byPaul Pettit

Comments / 13

Published by

Retired Forensic HWE / Military / Creative Junkie / Social Media Victim

Texas State

More from Mozelle Martin

Comments / 0