Neanderthal art pre-dates humans in Europe

Scientific analysis of cave paintings in Spain suggests that the artists must have been Neanderthals as they are dated prior to when ‘modern humans’ are thought to have arrived in Europe.

The researchers said their work suggested that Neanderthals were“cognitively indistinguishable” from early modern humans.

Reuters – Primitive art: Neanderthals were Europe’s first painters

A high-tech analysis of cave art at three Spanish sites, published on Thursday, dates the paintings to at least 64,800 years ago, or 20,000 years before modern humans arrived in Europe from Africa.

That makes the cave art much older than previously thought and provides the strongest evidence yet that Neanderthals had the cognitive capacity to understand symbolic representation, a central pillar of human culture.

“What we’ve got here is a smoking gun that really overturns the notion that Neanderthals were knuckle-dragging cavemen,” said Alistair Pike, professor of archaeological sciences at the University of Southampton, who co-led the study.

“Painting is something that has always been seen as a very human activity, so if Neanderthals are doing it they are being just like us,” he told Reuters.

While some archaeologists already viewed Neanderthals as more sophisticated than their commonplace caricature, the evidence until now has been inconclusive. With the data from the three Spanish cave sites described in the journal Science, Pike and colleagues believe they finally have rock-solid proof.

The early cave art at La Pasiega, Maltravieso and Ardales includes lines, dots, discs and hand stencils – and creating them would have involved specific skills, such as mixing pigments and selecting appropriate display locations.

Cave painting from Pasiega, Spain

My Neanderthal artist genes must not be dominant.

Scientists used a precise dating system based on the radioactive decay of uranium isotopes into thorium to assess the age of the paintings. This involved scraping a few milligrams of calcium carbonate deposit from the paintings for analysis.

A second related study published in Science Advances found that dyed and decorated marine shells from a different Spanish cave also dated back to pre-human times.

Joao Zilhao of the University of Barcelona said the new findings meant the search for the origins of human cognition needed to go back to the common ancestor of both Neanderthals and modern humans more than 500,000 years ago.

Neanderthals died out about 40,000 years ago, soon after direct ancestors arrived in Europe. It is unclear what killed them off, although theories include an inability to adapt to climate change and increased competition from modern humans.

According to the dates given here:

  • Paintings dated to at least 64,800 years ago
  • ‘Modern humans’ arrived in Europe about 20,000 years later ie about 45,000 years ago
  • Neanderthals ‘died out’ about 40,000 years ago

The genome connection between Neanderthals and modern humans was proved in 2013: The Mating Habits of Early Hominins

A high-quality genome sequence obtained from a female Neanderthal toe bone reveals that the individual’s parents were close relatives and that such inbreeding was prevalent among her recent ancestors, according to a paper published today (December 18) in Nature. But the sequence also reveals that interbreeding occurred between Neanderthals and other hominin groups, including early modern humans.

Despite the high degree of inbreeding that took place in the family of this particular Neanderthal—named the Altai Neanderthal—there was also evidence that Neanderthals in general interbred with other hominin groups. The team compared the genomes of the Altai Neanderthal, a Denisovan, a number of modern humans, and Neanderthals from Croatia and the Caucasus mountains, and confirmed earlier indications that modern humans contain both Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA.

They also showed that Denisovans contained both Neanderthal DNA sequences—most similar to that from the Altai Neanderthal—and sequences absent from Neanderthals and modern humans, which thus appear to have come from an unknown archaic hominin group.

This is very interesting, but there is something that puzzles me – humans are thought to have only arrived in Europe about 45,000 years ago, and interbred with Neanderthals, but:

In a 2011 genetic study by Ramussen et al., researchers took a DNA sample from an early 20th century lock of an Aboriginal person’s hair with low European admixture. They found that the ancestors of the Aboriginal population split off from the Eurasian population between 62,000 and 75,000 BP, whereas the European and Asian populations split only 25,000 to 38,000 years BP, indicating an extended period of Aboriginal genetic isolation.

The same genetic study of 2011 found evidence that Aboriginal peoples carry some of the genes associated with the Denisovan (a species of human related to but distinct from Neanderthals) peoples of Asia; the study suggests that there is an increase in allele sharing between the Denisovans and the Aboriginal Australians genome compared to other Eurasians and Africans.

The data suggest that modern and archaic humans interbred in Asia before the migration to Australia.

Before humans moved into Europe and interbred with Neanderthals.

Dating Aborigine art is difficult but:

“We don’t have the [dated] art itself, but we’ve found the tools that were used to make the art. For that reason, we rightfully assume that Australia has pigment art going back to when people first came here which is close to 50,000 years ago.”

That is before modern humans are thought to have arrived in Europe, which is much closer to Africa than Australia.

An older missing link

Missy posted this fascinating article:

A new find in the Eastern Mediterranean has led some scientists to believe that there is a possibility that humankind began there rather than in Africa as previously believed.

The fossil find is approximately 200,000 years earlier than believed to be the beginning of humans. The scientists believe that this find shows the beginning of the change from apes to humans.

That’s an accurate description, less so the headline and opening paragraph.

From: Europe was the birthplace of mankind, not Africa, scientists find

The history of human evolution has been rewritten after scientists discovered that Europe was the birthplace of mankind, not Africa.

That’s not what was found. The new discovery is of human fossils from Europe that are older than the oldest ones found in Africa, but that doesn’t rule out older human ancestors having lived in  Africa or elsewhere.

The new discovery just sets the timeline back a bit more, but there is still a lot that’s unknown.

Currently, most experts believe that our human lineage split from apes around seven million years ago in central Africa, where hominids remained for the next five million years before venturing further afield.

But two fossils of an ape-like creature which had human-like teeth have been found in Bulgaria and Greece, dating to 7.2 million years ago.

The discovery of the creature, named Graecopithecus freybergi, and nicknameded ‘El Graeco’ by scientists, proves our ancestors were already starting to evolve in Europe 200,000 years before the earliest African hominid.

An international team of researchers say the findings entirely change the beginning of human history and place the last common ancestor of both chimpanzees and humans – the so-called Missing Link – in the Mediterranean region.

It doesn’t “entirely change the beginning of human history”, it just provides another piece of the jigsaw that pushes knowledge back a another couple of hundred thousand years – if the dating is accurate.

The article also says as much.

“To some extent this is a newly discovered missing link. But missing links will always exist , because evolution is infinite chain of subsequent forms.

Probably  El Graeco’s face will resemble a great ape, with shorter canines.”

Someone has had a shot at visualising that.

An artist's impression of Graecopithecus 

An artist’s impression of Graecopithecus 
Credit: National Museum of Natural History – Sofia, Assen Ignatov

Fascinating, but this is unlikely to be the first link in the human chain.

And another point:

During the period the Mediterranean Sea went through frequent periods of drying up completely, forming a land bridge between Europe and Africa and allowing apes and early hominids to pass between the continents.

If the Mediterranean was dried up completely then Africa and Europe were effectively not separate continents, they were part of a continuous land mass.

Were there advanced dinosaurs?

We have pieced together quite a bit of information about dinosaurs due to the discovery of a few fossilised bones here and there.

But there seems top be quite a bit that has been guessed – for example what they actually looked like.

And there is a lot that isn’t known and probably can never be known.

Would we be able to tell if some type of dinosaur – or another type of creature – developed far more than others, became the dominant species, and then died out, either due to a global catastrophe like a meteor strike, or super survival rates allowed survival of most rather than just the strongest and then tougher conditions, like an ice age, ended up being unsurvivable for a genetically weakened and hardship inexperienced species?

Humans only got a bit smart over the last million or two years ago, and substantially smart over the past 100,000 or so years. And we only become advance, quite rapidly, over the past 10,000 years – probably coinciding with the end of the last ice age.

Does the way evolution inevitably works mean we have drastically weakened our genetic stock and our ability to  survive without substantial technology is quickly fading.

What if the power suddenly went off and we had to survive in a world absent of electricity?

It’s not long ago that our ancestors could manage without switches and computers. But the human population has dramatically increased in the electricity age. Many people would struggle without it, businesses would struggle without it.

Pressure would go on those who had sufficient resources and survival skills as others want to co-opt a way to survive.

Maybe just like empires rise and fall species inevitably rise and fall over a longer time frame.

A devastating virus may mutate and we are unable to find a way of surviving it quickly enough.

A massive volcanic eruption may severely disrupt the world food supply for a year or two.

Or we could meet a meteor.

Any number of things could happen. Even the smarter dinosaurs didn’t survive.

Earth overshoots available resources for the year

According to how much resources the Global Footprint Network calculates are available for us to use on Earth each year to ensure sustainablility we are in the red already, and eveything used now makes it hardert for us to continue to survive.

Christian Science Monitor reports in Resource overdraft: Planet Earth crosses into ecological red:

Thursday marked Earth Overshoot Day – the day when the world’s population officially exhausts all the natural resources the Earth can generate in a single year, as defined by the sustainability think tank, Global Footprint Network.

Overshoot depletes the Earth of its natural capital and catalyzes a buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, environmentalists say.

That buildup drastically harms the environment through deforestation, drought, fresh-water scarcity, soil erosion, and biodiversity loss, according to GFN.

All of these degenerative conditions lead to excessive ecological spending, and Overshoot Day serves as a reminder that the global population needs to implement greener solutions before natural resources drop to dangerous levels.

The UN provided the first reliable statistics on the matter in 1961. Since then, humanity’s demand for resources has quickly exceeded the amount nature could provide, with the planet reaching global overshoot in the early 1970s.

In 2000, Earth Overshoot Day landed in October. It’s occurrence in August this year reflects the rapidly expanding demands placed on the planet’s natural resources.

Of course you can argue about the calculations. But it’s harder to argue about the likelihood that humans use more resources than we generate or that Earth can replace naturally.

We continue to consume more per capita and that looks like getting worse as third world countries improve standfards of living. This cetiry there have been and will continue to be big changes in consumptiom i heavily populated countries like China and India.

And the world population continues to grow. Currently a world population calculator is at 7,360,175,026.

Population milestones:

  • 1 billion: 1804
  • 2 billion: 1927
  • 3 billion: 1960
  • 4 billion: 1974
  • 5 billion: 1987
  • 6 billion: 1999
  • 7 billion: 2012
  • 8 billion: 2024 (predicted)

So the population has more than doubled in my lifetime. While the rate of growth is predicted to slow down it is still increasing substantially. More graphically:


Source: Worldometers

So it is quite feasible that we are using more than we or Earth can produce, and we are polluting more than we can clean up.

And the overshooting ill effects are accumulative.

According to people like the Greens as a world we are already stuffed unless we take drastic action immediately.

That may or may or may not be a reaslitc assessment.

But there should be no doubt that humankind faces huge challenges, now and in the future. It may not get too bad in the rest of my lifetime, or for a few generations.

But at some stage it’s certain that Earth and it’s human population will suffer badly.

It might be a gradual deterioration.

Or it could be a sudden impact. An asteroid collision is claimed to have ended the age of dinosaurs, so something similar for humans can’t be ruled out.

More likely is a major volcanic eruption – a sudden reduction in sunlight and food production for a year or two could easily precipitate drastic widespread hardship.

The risks per lifetime probably aren’t high. But the risks are significantly invcreased of we are already accumulatively overshooting Earth’s resources.

What are we going to do about it? Most people will probably ignore it and hope that it won’t happen or will go away or that someone will invent something that will fix everything.

But what if someone invents something that doubles human lifespans?

Asians may be more Neanderthal than Europeans

Additional DNA knowledge on how much Neanderthal genes are mixed with human DNA has led to a new theory – that Asians have had a double dose of Neanderthal DNA, possibly at different times.

It’s interesting but is a developing party of evolutionary science and seems to disprove the last theory on the amount of Neanderthal DNA shared by us humans. And another recent study suggests otherwise. Never mind.

The key stages from A New Theory on How Neanderthal DNA Spread in Asia

  • Scientists estimate that the Neanderthals’ ancestors diverged from ours 600,000 years ago.
  • Neanderthals first appeared in Europe at least 300,000 years ago.
  • The oldest fossils of Neanderthals date back about 200,000 years, while the most recent are an estimated 40,000 years old. Researchers have found Neanderthal bones at sites across Europe and western Asia, from Spain to Siberia.
  • Our own ancestors remained in Africa until about 60,000 years ago, then expanded across the rest of the Old World.
  • About 50,000 years ago, Neanderthals interbred with the ancestors of living Europeans and Asians.
  • People who are not of African descent have stretches of genetic material almost identical to Neanderthal DNA, comprising about 2 percent of their entire genomes. These DNA fragments are the evidence that Neanderthals interbred with the early migrants out of Africa, likely in western Asia
  • People in China, Japan and other East Asian countries have about 20 percent more Neanderthal DNA than do Europeans.

The new theory:

But there are still uncertainties.

If Neanderthals became extinct 40,000 years ago, they may have disappeared before Europeans and Asian populations genetically diverged. How could there have been Neanderthals left to interbreed with Asians a second time?

It is conceivable that the extinction of the Neanderthals happened later in Asia. If that is true, there might yet be more recent Neanderthal fossils waiting to be discovered there.

Or perhaps Asians interbred with some other group of humans that had interbred with Neanderthals and carried much of their DNA. Later, that group disappeared.

Regardless of the finer details this is what they think some of your ancestors may have looked like.

Reconstruction of the head of the Shanidar 1 fossil, a Neanderthal male
who lived c. 70,000 years ago (John Gurche2010).

But that’s just one interesting article and one handsome dude.

Another recent article citing DNA research claims there was no interbreeding with Neanderthals – The Neanderthal murder mystery.

Those scientists may not fancy being related to the this dep;iction of them: