The cave art of Homo neanderthalensis demonstrates what it is to be part of the human species

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Under the heading ‘Readers’ Contributions’ we aim to encourage our readers and sympathisers to write texts and articles which can go into greater depth than is possible in our discussion forum, and so stimulate a longer term reflection. These articles, while being broadly based on proletarian politics, need not fully represent the positions of the ICC, or may deal with issues on which the ICC does not have a collective view. Here, a close sympathiser looks at recent discoveries of ‘Neaderthal art’  and the implications for a marxist understanding of ‘pre-history’.


Of late, the general tendency of scientific research into the history of humanity has been to put significant dates of certain profound historical events further and further back in time[i]. This has happened quite often over the last quarter century as dating techniques have advanced greatly and as the ideology of the bourgeoisie of the incremental rise of mankind to the natural order of an, albeit slightly imperfect, capitalism has cracked in the face of reality. In some senses science here, following the evidence it has unearthed, has shown a certain independence from the economic base that funds it. At the same time the marxist perspective on the importance of prehistory is reaffirmed through a deepening of its understanding of the past, including  "primitive" communism and its means of production; the intellectual and the no less important spiritual means of production, consciousness, solidarity and the ubiquitous power of belief systems.

The discovery of Neanderthal cave art in Spain

The findings, reported in Nature, 22.2.2018, show that in La Pasiega, a cave in northern Spain there are red linear motifs on a painted stalagmite older than 64, 800 years; at Ardeles in southern Spain, there are different paintings including one between 43,300 and 48,700 years old and another up to 65,000 years old; in Maltravieso, west-central Spain, there's a red hand stencil that was made no less than 66,700 years ago. These dates go back twenty-thousand years before Homo Sapiens arrived in Europe. Providing the dating technique is correct, this shows that these depictions were made by Neanderthals. This is quite an interesting development given that cave art, whose antiquity and sophistication has always been questioned by the proponents of bourgeois ideology, is one of the main tenets of what is supposed to make us "human", and by this is meant to be Homo Sapiens as distinct from all other species.  The Guardian's art critic Jonathan Jones is one of these bourgeois vectors, advocating "representational art" as a sole feature of Homo Sapiens. There's no doubting the power of observation in the depictions of Upper Palaeolithic animals but, leaving that aside for the moment, a concept of "representational art", i.e., painting what you see, completely underestimates the magic, complexities, meanings and fundamentally spiritual nature of cave art even if made by Sapiens. Jones suggests that Neanderthal art is the work of "three-year olds", primitive and "childish", showing himself as nothing more than yet another ignorant art critic. Homo Sapiens' Upper Palaeolithic cave art lasted in all its essentials for a period of twenty-eight thousand years and while quite stunning, its earlier development by Neanderthals is not entirely surprising. If the dates stack up it's quite a discovery that tends to break down further distinctions between Sapiens and Neanderthals.

 Radiocarbon dating is difficult when applied to cave art but the uranium-thorium method used in dating these paintings is a better option and is a well established geo-chronological technique which measures the decay in the calcium deposits covering the painting. Further verification would be useful to be absolutely sure, bearing in mind the uncertainty around Neanderthal cave art at the Nerja caves in Spain where the charcoal remains besides stalagmites painted in a kind of double-helix design were dated by radiocarbon and are open to dispute. But while it's always good to have these dates confirmed, particularly with multiple lines of converging evidence (archaeological, etc.), there's plenty elsewhere to demonstrate that Neanderthals were perfectly capable of such activities.

The humanity of Homo Neanderthalensis

Even without any of these latest depictions there's already more than enough evidence to make a compelling case for the human qualities of Neanderthals. They had a common African ancestor with Sapiens in Homo Erectus and existed and evolved from northern Europe to Central Asia from 400 to 40 thousand years ago. They were the first, and remain the first, human species to survive a glaciation event, which must have required an intellectual and body strength based on a fair degree of wit and organisation. Just as bourgeois ideology and its "specialists", accompanied by the ignorant chatter of its "critics", always look to emphasise division so, since their discovery in 1829, it has sought to paint Neanderthalensis (henceforward, HN) as an ignorant savage in much the same way it used to talk about earlier Sapiens. Thus the extinction of is often described as "the first genocide" by humans,  which neatly turns Sapiens back into murdering savages again[ii].  Demonstrating its fundamentally reactionary nature The Guardian, through it "science" editor Robin McKie, allows such sub-headings as: "How Neanderthals met a grisly fate: devoured by humans". Neanderthals and Sapiens worked alongside each other at an "industrial" flint site in France for up to a thousand years and there's evidence of a HN/Sapiens overlap of ten thousand years in Siberia (Chris Scarre, The Human Past) and, though its impossibility was clearly stated by the scientific hacks of capitalism for ages, the inter-breeding between both is beyond any doubt[iii].

Four hundred metres deep inside the Bruniquel cave in the Pyrenees there is evidence of wall-like structures built out of stalagmites by HN 175 thousand years ago, one of the earliest known building structures. They made tools from bone and had a sophisticated range of tools that would have included those which could be used in making fine etchings on cave walls. At Cueva de los Aviones in south-eastern Spain researchers found HN perforated sea-shells, beads and pigments dated no less than 115 thousand years ago, and no less than from forty thousand years ago, deep in Gorham's Cave, Gibraltar, are ten-foot square etchings of Neanderthal abstract art. Evidence of their varied diet disproved the current idea that they were strictly meat-eaters incapable of cooking and processing food, and they provided themselves with fire, shelter and clothing. There's clear evidence that they buried their dead with some care in some places, that they knew about medicinal plants and cared for the sick, injured and weak (in Shanidar cave in Iraq, amongst others), again qualities that were supposed to be exclusive to Sapiens. All in all these suggest that Neanderthals were perfectly capable of producing a cave art that was some way beyond and much more profound than simple representation.

The paintings

It's very early to comment on the paintings discovered in the Spanish caves above and there's been very little said in the reports about the techniques used. There's a need for detailed text describing them from direct observation and, ideally, 3-D images of sufficient scale in order to fully examine them. Photographs don't tend to do cave paintings justice, distorts them even, particularly as prehistoric cave art is always painted on rough, craggy, uneven and fractured surfaces as flat surfaces were deliberately ignored everywhere, possibly by taboo. This fact alone shows a certain spiritual connection with the act of application, the surface, the pigment and "what lies beyond" the cave's surface. That HN should be using these surfaces, deep into the caves, in deliberately selected locations sometimes in almost inaccessible places, show that, as with Upper Palaeolithic Homo Sapien's cave art, spirituality and belief systems play a big part.

But there are some more or less speculative observations that we can make from a first look at the paintings: the red dotted curve in the composition at La Pasiega comes round perfectly before a sudden turn backwards on itself while rising in a stronger vertical column. This is reminiscent of the description of the Sapiens prehistoric cave art curve by Max Raphael that "The straight line and rigid geometrization and symmetrisation of the concave-convex curve into a sine curve are avoided everywhere. The originally complementary parts of the curve are shifted and their measures and positions become asymmetrical in relation to its turning point..". I think that Raphael would have been amazed that his analysis could be applied to and reflected within Neanderthal art. And this particular curve also raises his analysis of it being related to magic, motion, time and being.  Elements of Epicurean philosophy painted on a cave wall by Neanderthals? Surely not? Why not? "That which is abstractly possible, which can be conceived constitutes no obstacle to the thinking subject, no limit, no stumbling-block" (Marx). At any rate, I think that the expression of free will is undeniable in this composition. The "ladder" symbol adjacent[iv] to the dotted curve is a common "sign" in Upper Paleolithic cave art and to the right of this there's a complex abstract design. What's immediately striking about this element of the composition is its expressive asymmetry[v] which is a feature of all Upper Paleolithic  Sapiens art where the asymmetrical dominates (full face or head-on depictions of animals are very rare in Upper Paleolithic cave art). What's even more interesting in the La Pasiega composition is that "inside" the ladder there are two animals, one of which is a large quadruped, possibly pregnant, which is disappearing into the cave wall[vi]. Underneath this is what looks like a hind (a series of curves) emerging from the cave wall. As with most spiritual elements of cave art there are no ground lines and the feet of the animals disappear into the ether. As with the great majority of animal depictions in this epoch, the feet and the lower part of the leg fade away, giving a "floating" appearance and accentuate the curvature of the animal. This particular disappearance into and emergence from the surface again, possibly transformed, shows the spiritual nature of the action and its depiction of these animals as spirits. It's not clear from the reports if these two animals have been dated to the same time as the rest of the painting, but there are two interesting possibilities: either these were painted by HN which further emphasises their interest in the spiritual[vii] and takes the paintings of animals back twenty-eight thousand years further; or they were added later by HS, which itself shows an important cooperative development in the historical process of art and belief systems. And it raises the question of the African heritage for all art forms.

The hand-print at Maltravieso, red ochre blown over an outstretched hand, dated to 66,700 years, do belong to HN and points to the spiritual nature of this action. The hand was vital; it was the hand that produced everything including this work and the hand is not just stencilled onto the wall, it connects to the surface and penetrates it. This particular symbolism is absolutely everywhere in Upper Paleolithic art from Europe, to Africa, Australia and south-east Asia[viii]. This shows a solid continuity and given that it was probably the shaman who was the artist in the Upper Paleolithic caves, given the spiritual nature of this recently discovered (or recently dated) art, and given that HN would likely had medicine men or women, then these painting show the probability that belief systems, based on magic and expressed by certain individuals, played a very dynamic role and go a very long way back at least to Neanderthals and longer I suspect. But that's speculation.

To give one example of the continuity of these belief systems: Ethnological evidence shows us that when the shamans of the San Bushmen go into their trance-dance - in which everybody joins - they often suffer a nasal haemorrhage and bleed from the nose. Depiction on Upper Palaeolithic caves 40,000 years ago show significant animals in meaningful circumstances bleeding from the nose. There is continuity but it can be argued that any "specialisation" of shamanism is a comparatively recent development that, as with the San Bushmen, it is more diffused among the community, or at least there were gradations and artistic stages of shamanic ability. While there is continuity, this is not a monolithic belief system and neither is it static.

What are the implications?

I've put forward some speculative ideas above on some of the implications but first of all this discovery widens and deepens a marxist perspective on prehistory, adding more weight to a materialist understanding of the development of mankind of which Homo Neanderthalensis is an important component.

With their direct antecedents over 2 million years old, and not much different from them, Homo Nadeli, a small-brained genus of Homo, were burying their dead at a site north-west of Johannesburg (there's some debate about this) over a quarter of a million years ago. At any rate this was a persistent character roaming the African bush around the same time, 300 thousand years ago, as the first Sapiens were appearing in Jebel Iroud, Morocco. And these two species weren't alone. Around the same time, in the Kapthurian Formation of Kenya, Homo Erectus was processing ochre. Ochre is not only used for pigment, it has medicinal properties and a wide range of practical uses. Liquefied red ochre, no less than 200 thousand years old, has been found at a Neanderthal site at Maastricht in the Netherlands. The hematite material was transported sixty kilometres to be processed by heat. At Twin-Rivers, Zambia, there's evidence of a range of ochre production 350-400 thousand years ago, possibly by Homo Heidelbergensis, which includes a "startling purple". This is only (a big "only") Africa and all these "species", all around the same time and there's at least two more, raises the possibilities of inter-action, breeding across various divisions and so on, none of which precludes confrontations, regressions and struggles.

The whole question of "species" is once again raised by this art. Scientific classification delineating different species of Homo is extremely complex and contentious and not something we can go into here. Skull size is one of the factors determining species but this is somewhat fluid. Homo Nadeli, mentioned above, has a skull size about a third of ours but this species managed to survive and flourish alongside another half-a-dozen Homo divisions; and the diminutive Homo Floresiensis had a skull size less than half of Homo Erectus but still produced relatively modern looking tools. And a glance around a modern high street will see people of around the same size and age with any number of different shaped and sized skulls, just as a look around the same high street will reveal both men and women with clear Neanderthal features[ix]. The fact that there were so many extant species of Homo shows that each had in common the defence of the bonds of their society, which could well have included some kinds of belief systems and an extension and openness to others which including breeding with them (the full extent of this has yet to be revealed by DNA). It does show that there was no evolution in the sense of a gradual, linear and incremental progression, an evolutionary determinism which is just as much a distortion of Darwin as Social Darwinism. There is no deterministic outcome but a common African origin and a universal human spirit. Rather than clearly different species there's more than an element of subdivision of species, with definite species not being perennial but groups ranged under different classifications which could be fluid. Of course those less well adapted would have died out for one reason or another.

Homo Sapiens represent a conclusion to the whole period of human history from the Australopithecines onwards. And within the former, the proletariat represents the future for the whole of humanity and it has to struggle for unity against all divisions in order to bring an end to the whole period of prehistory. In the ICC text ‘The question of the relation between nature and culture (on the book by Patrick Tort, Sex, Race and Culture)’ there's a quote which I think applies to the whole history of Homo: "At the beginning of this process it's the elimination of the weakest which predominates then, through a progressive inversion it's the protection of the weak that finally imposes itself, an eminent mark of solidarity of the group". I don't think that this process of the elimination of the weakest would have lasted long given the significant advantage conferred by solidarity; and, further, I think that in order for them to survive, solidarity and some form of society would have existed among the much earlier Australopithecines[x]. The better adapted, with more numerous descendents and advantageous variations, frees them from the grip of natural selection[xi] and imposes, amongst a whole range of the species Homo a non-deterministic development towards a new synthesis. The whole process is one of transformation and, as Marx indicated, as man transforms nature he transforms his own being. This transformation has resulted in our species, Homo Sapiens, becoming the dominant species on the planet and this itself has been a struggle. Archaeological evidence of the early stages of Sapiens in Africa show significant developments in the means of production quickly disappearing and ensuing regressions - it's not been a one-way process. There's no evidence that Sapiens "wiped out" Neanderthals and what evidence there is points to other reasons for their demise. DNA shows that our species bred with them and possibly others but the main reason for the emergence and ultimately "winning out" must be that Homo Sapiens - for a whole range of historical circumstances and developments, not least theory, practice and organisation - adapted better to the spaces that they moved into.

The discovery of the cave art of Homo Neaderthalensis doesn't re-write the history of humanity but it does throw more light on it and shows the variety of the human species. I also think that it underlines the dynamic and independent role that belief systems have played from a long way back.

Baboon 18.4.2018


[i]  On significant dates going backwards see ‘Finally, first of all...’  on the ICC's website:

[ii]  There are probably a number of reasons why Neanderthals became extinct, not least climate change for such a specifically adapted species. It only takes a very small fall in the birth-rate in any species for that to become disastrous and irreversible over a relatively short time. One could also argue that they didn't become extinct, given the amount of breeding with Sapiens and their significant existence in our genome today.

[iii]  According to the experts we share 1.8 to 2.6% of our DNA with Neanderthals. This may not sound much in total but it's that amount on every single page of a very long book. At the same time as the HN/HS "overlap" in Siberia there was also the presence in this region of another genetically distinct species of homo, the Denisovans. The recently-discovered Denisovans interbred with HN and some modern humans. About 3 to 5% of the DNA of people from Melanesia (islands of the south-west Pacific Ocean, Australia and New Guinea, as well as the aboriginal people of the Philippines) comes from the Denisovans.

[iv]  While terms like adjacent, inside, above, under, next to, etc., are purely mechanical and rendered virtually meaningless in the essence of this art, its mastery over perspective and the effects it makes from the use of space shouldn't be underestimated. This is not primitive; it's of the highest artistic quality.

[v]  It looks like a sharper designed version of a Rorschach ink-blot cut in half.

[vii]  "Spiritual" can mean virtually anything but this concept of the "floating", disappearing animal, which is a constant feature of Upper Paleolithic cave art, could well describe the trans-cosmological travel of the shaman who, using the supernatural potency of the animal-spirit, soars, goes to the depths and penetrates the cave wall. If the Neanderthals had such concepts it would be significant I think.

[viii] The technique for the hand prints are either to cover the spread hand with paint and press it against the wall or to press the hand against the wall and blow or spit the paint over it. Either way, it was a process undertaken by men and women along with some adolescents, and in some places the hand prints make up a larger depiction of an animal. The hand prints are asymmetrical and tracing a line from the tip of the thumb to the little finger there is a distinct curve.

[ix] There's nothing pejorative about pointing this out; former Arsenal and Spurs players, Martin Keown and Gareth Bale for example both have clear Neanderthal features which could be described as rugged good looks.

[x] It must have done; these hominines were much smaller than us today and the big cats, who hunted in packs, would have been much larger and, after a certain point, able to get up a tree faster and higher. This is without mentioning all the other dangers. In the absence of fire solidarity, society was the only answer and those outside of it would have perished.

[xi]  A quick aside on this question: A recent programme on the BBC by David Attenborough called "Empire of the Ants" showed the wood ants of the Jura Mountains renouncing war, while remaining mobilised, in favour of greater cooperation. He said that this example, which he examined in some detail, called into question many assumptions about natural selection.