Inside the Walls (Evolution)

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Knuckle-Draggers No More

These early artists decorated walls of caves with delicate, dramatic animal paintings. The multicolored cascades of prey and predator animals -- bison, deer, bears, cattle, mammoths, and reindeer -- are interspersed with geometric symbols and, in some places, female images probably referring to fertility.

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Some of the animals have been overdrawn several times and pierced with spears in what were likely some kind of ritual act. The oldest representational cave painting dates from about 30, years ago.

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  • Most date from 20, years ago or less, in what's called the Upper Paleolithic era. Rocks were ground up to make pigments -- black and ochre were the main ones -- which were then sometimes applied to outlines of figures first engraved into the stone and at others painted directly onto the cave wall. They were made at a time when Western Europe was dominated not by forest, but by fertile steppes that were home to an abundance of animals that the Cro-Magnons hunted, brought home, divided up, cooked, and ate. It was dangerous work, judging by a scene painted in the renowned Lascaux cave of a man being killed by a bison.

    Other tableaux are hard to interpret without knowing what cultural beliefs and aspirations these Stone Age artists were representing. Because the paintings are often found deep inside caves in spots difficult to get to, it's likely that they were rarely visited and therefore of special importance. One hypothesis is that the art is reflects "sympathetic magic," a ritual aimed at bringing good luck to the hunters.

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    The true significance of these magnificent cave paintings at Lascaux and Chauvet in France and at Altamira in Spain remains elusive. But scientists conclude that this art, some of it brilliant even by today's standards, reflects the development of "symbolic life," an important turning point in hominid evolution that has sometimes been dubbed "the mind's big bang. All rights reserved. Long before Picasso , ancient artists in what is now Spain were making creative works of their own, mixing pigments, crafting beads out of seashells, and painting murals on cave walls.

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    The twist? These artistic innovators were probably Neanderthals. Dated to 65, years ago, the cave paintings and shell beads are the first works of art dated to the time of Neanderthals , and they include the oldest cave art ever found. In two new studies, published Thursday in Science and Science Advances , researchers lay out the case that these works of art predate the arrival of modern Homo sapiens to Europe, which means someone else must have created them.

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    Learn more about Homo neanderthalensis and how the species fits into our evolution story. In three caves scattered across Spain, researchers found more than a dozen examples of wall paintings that are more than 65, years old.

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    At Cueva de los Aviones, a cave in southeastern Spain, researchers also found perforated seashell beads and pigments that are at least , years old. And they were made by Neanderthals.

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    • Do I need to say more? The authors argue that, despite their oafish reputations in pop culture, Neanderthals were the cognitive equals of Homo sapiens.

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      If their results hold, the finds imply that the smarts underpinning symbolic art may date back to the common ancestor of Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, some , years ago. In , limestone quarry workers in Germany's Neander Valley found bones that at first seemed to belong to a deformed human.

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      Scientists of the time soon concluded that the large-browed, barrel-chested figure belonged to a distinct hominin species: Homo neanderthalensis. At the time, Neanderthals were considered more brawn than brains, with one scientist even suggesting that they be classified as Homo stupidus.

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      But since the s, researchers have jettisoned the knuckle-dragging stereotypes. Neanderthals buried their dead with care , crafted stone tools, and used medicinal plants. Genetic evidence also shows that Neanderthals and modern humans interbred: About two percent of modern European and Asian DNA traces back to Neanderthals. Some researchers had been reluctant, though, to say that Neanderthals could make symbolic art.

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