World’s Oldest Art Was Created by Neanderthals, Archaeologists Says

Neanderthal art was perhaps more abstract than the stereotypical figure and animal cave paintings Homo sapiens made after Neanderthals disappeared about 30,000 years ago. But archaeologists are beginning to appreciate how creative Neanderthal art was in its own right.

Neanderthal populations in Europe have been traced back at least 400,000 years.

As early as 250,000 years ago, Neanderthal were mixing minerals such as hematite (ochre) and manganese with fluids to make red and black paints — presumably to decorate the body and clothing.

In the 1990s, research by archaeologists radically changed the common view of Neanderthals as dullards.

We now know that, far from trying to keep up with Homo sapiens, they had a nuanced behavioral evolution of their own. Their large brains earned their evolutionary keep.

We know from finding remains in underground caves, including footprints and evidence of tool use and pigments in places where Neanderthals had no obvious reason to be that they appear to have been inquisitive about their world.

Why were they straying from the world of light into the dangerous depths where there was no food or drinkable water?

We can’t say for sure, but as this sometimes involved creating art on cave walls it was probably meaningful in some way rather than just exploration.

Neanderthals lived in small, close-knit groups that were highly nomadic.

When they traveled, they carried embers with them to light small fires at the rock shelters and river banks where they camped. They used tools to whittle their spears and butcher carcasses.

We should think of them as family groups, held together by constant negotiations and competition between people.

Although organized into small groups it was really a world of individuals.

The evolution of Neanderthals’ visual culture over time suggests their social structures were changing.

They increasingly used pigments and ornaments to decorate their bodies.

As I elaborate in my book, Homo sapiens Rediscovered, 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.

Then, at least 65,000 years ago, Neanderthals used red pigments to paint marks on the walls of deep caves in Spain.

La Pasiega Cave, section C, cave wall with paintings: the ladder shape composed of red horizontal and vertical lines (center left) dates to older than 64,000 years and was made by Neanderthals. Image credit: P. Saura.

In Ardales cave near Malaga in southern Spain, they colored the concave sections of bright white stalactites.

In Maltravieso cave in Extremadura, western Spain, they drew around their hands.

And in La Pasiega cave in Cantabria in the north, one Neanderthal made a rectangle by pressing pigment-covered fingertips repeatedly to the wall.

We can’t guess the specific meaning of these marks, but they suggest that Neanderthal people were becoming more imaginative.

Later still, about 50,000 years ago, came personal ornaments to accessorize the body.

These were restricted to animal body parts — pendants made of carnivore teeth, shells and bits of bone.

These necklaces were similar to those worn around the same time by Homo sapiens, probably reflecting a simple shared communication that each group could understand.

Did Neanderthal visual culture differ from that of Homo sapiens? I think it probably did, although not in sophistication.

They were producing non-figurative art tens of millennia before the arrival of Homo sapiens in Europe, showing that they had independently created it.

But it differed. We have as yet no evidence that Neanderthals produced figurative art such as paintings of people or animals, which from at least 37,000 years ago was widely produced by the Homo sapiens groups that would eventually replace them in Eurasia.

Figurative art is not a badge of modernity, nor the lack of it an indication of primitiveness.

Neanderthals used visual culture in a different way to their successors.

Their colors and ornaments strengthened messages about each other through their own bodies rather than depictions of things.

It may be significant that our own species didn’t produce images of animals or anything else until after 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.


Paul Pettitt. Homo sapiens Rediscovered: The Scientific Revolution Rewriting Our Origins. Thames & Hudson, 2023

Author: Professor Paul Pettitt, a researcher in the Department of Archaeology at Durham University.