July 8, 2004 | David F. Coppedge

Maybe Neanderthals Were Artists After All

Revised dating of human bones near figurines has cast an assumption about early humans into doubt, reports Nature Science Update.  Aurignacian artefacts, like horse figurines and other carved images, have long been thought to be telltale indicators of modern man.  Vogelherd cave near Ulm, Germany was considered the best example, because sandwiched between modern human bones was one of the richest deposits of Aurignacian artefacts ever found.  But now those same bones, earlier dated at 30,000 to 40,000 years old, yielded a more rigorous radiocarbon date of only 5,000 years.1
    The researchers now believe the modern bones represent recent intrusive burials, rather than in situ emplacements of skeletal remains corresponding to the same period as the artwork.  These figurines had been earlier radiocarbon dated at 30,000 to 36,000 years BP (before the present), a crucial era when (according to the most popular theory), modern humans were moving into Europe and displacing Neanderthals.  The new Holocene (recent) dates for the bones thus unravels the best example of a correlation between modern humans with Aurignacian artefacts.  Michael Hopkin laments,

For years archaeologists have clung to the idea that only truly modern humans were artists, and that our Neanderthal cousins spent their entire evolutionary lifetime as boorish philistines.  But fresh analysis of a prized set of human bones has dealt a body blow to this cherished theory.

Anthropologists had thought that the artwork represented the earliest modern human intrusion into Europe during a time the Neanderthals in were in decline.  Now the story is up in the air.  “The discovery leaves experts without a concrete link between art’s origins and modern man,” says Hopkin, and it cannot be ruled out that Neanderthals were the craftsmen.  Whatever the impact, the revised dates ruin the proof that modern humans made the figurines, and “now no one knows the real story.”  In the words of the scientists who published in Nature,

The Holocene age of the human skeletal remains from Vogelherd places the question of who made the earliest Aurignacian in Europe in doubt.  At present the hypothesis that the Neanderthals gave rise to the early Aurignacian, as has been argued by some colleagues including Richter, cannot be refuted.  Additionally, the Danube Corridor model for the early colonization of central Europe by modern humans, although still plausible, can no longer be demonstrated on the basis of associations between modern humans and the early Aurignacian at Vogelherd.  With the new dates from Vogelherd one of the most widely held assumptions of paleoanthropology—that the Aurignacian is uniquely associated with modern humans—seems more uncertain than ever.  These results also create the possibility that the figurative art found at Vogelherd was produced by Neanderthals.  New excavations providing unequivocal associations between human skeletal remains and the early Aurignacian will be necessary to address these issues.


1Conard et al., “Unexpectedly recent dates for human remains from Vogelherd,” Nature 430, 198 – 201 (08 July 2004); doi:10.1038/nature02690.

The finding does not claim that Neanderthals made the artwork, but it removes a prejudice that they could not have because they were too dumb.  Where did that prejudice come from?  It dates way back to Darwin and Huxley, who used Neanderthal man as a prop for the evolution of man.  This one measurement strikes down “one of the most widely held assumptions of paleoanthropology.”  That’s the problem with assumptions: they are assumed, not proved.  They are not scientific results, but rather hunches that stimulate a scientist to pursue a certain line of investigation.  Repeated mismatches of assumptions to measurements should lead an investigator to consider the possibility that he is on the wrong track.  The thing that keeps making paleoanthropologists stumble over each new discovery is the assumption of evolution.  The second stumblingblock is reliance on shaky dating methods.  The measure of persistence in spite of repeated stumblings is a function of the will to believe something regardless of the evidence.

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Categories: Early Man

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