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Iberian cave paintings reveal Neanderthals were world’s first artists

The world's oldest known cave art was crafted by Neanderthals more than 20,000 years before modern humans arrived in Europe, showing that our extinct cousins were capable of symbolic thinking just like us, international researchers said Thursday.

Iberian cave paintings reveal Neanderthals were world's first artists
Wall art from a cave in Maltravieso. Photo: AFP

The report in the journal Science is based on new technology that reveals the most accurate age yet of ancient cave paintings at three different archeological sites in Spain.

“This is an incredibly exciting discovery which suggests Neanderthals were much more sophisticated than is popularly believed,” said co-lead author Chris Standish, an archaeologist at the University of Southampton.

“Our results show that the paintings we dated are, by far, the oldest known cave art in the world.”

Since they were created some 64,000 years ago — at least 20,000 years before modern humans arrived in Europe from Africa — “they must have been painted by Neanderthals,” he added.

Using mainly red pigments and sometimes black, groups of animals, hand stencils, engravings, dots, discs and geometric designs are depicted in the cave paintings at La Pasiega in the northeast, Maltravieso in the west and Ardales in the south of Spain.

These symbolic renderings point to an intelligence that was previously thought to be uniquely the realm of modern humans.   

“The emergence of symbolic material culture represents a fundamental threshold in the evolution of humankind,” said co-lead author Dirk Hoffmann of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

“It is one of the main pillars of what makes us human.” 

New technology

Plenty of evidence already exists to debunk the myth that Neanderthals were knuckle-dragging brutes, and instead were capable of decorative impulses and rituals, like burying their dead.

But cave paintings were one of the last bastions that appeared to differentiate anatomically modern humans from Neanderthals, who died out some 35,000 years ago.

“Recent years have seen studies that show Neanderthals made extensive use of ornamental objects, potentially built structures, and on the whole, appear far more capable of symbolic cognitive processes than has historically been regarded,” Adam Van Arsdale, associate professor of anthropology at Wellesley
College, told AFP.    

“These results suggest that cave painting, also, fails to distinguish Neanderthals and modern humans,” said Van Arsdale, who was not involved in the study.

READ ALSO: A Spanish quest to hand down ancient secrets

He said the findings reflect “some impressive technical developments in dating techniques in cave contexts, issues that have always posed a challenge for our understanding the timing of key events in human evolution.”   

He added: “As a new and technically challenging method, it will be good to see these results replicated by others.”

To date but not destroy

Until now, figuring out the age of cave drawings without destroying them has been difficult.

The new approach is based on obtaining a minimum age for cave art “using Uranium-Thorium (U-Th) dating of carbonate crusts overlying the pigments,” explained Hoffman.   

The technique of U-Th dating is based on the radioactive decay of uranium isotopes into thorium.

It can determine the age of calcium carbonate formations going back as far as 500,000 years, much further than the widely used radiocarbon method, said the report.   

More than 60 tiny samples, less than 10 milligrams each, were analyzed from the three caves.

A second study, also published this week by Hoffmann and colleagues, determined the age of an archaeological deposit located at the Cueva de los Aviones, a sea cave in southeast Spain.   

“This cave contained perforated sea shells, red and yellow colorants and shell containers including complex mixes of pigments,” said the report.    

U-Th dating found the flowstone covering the deposit to about 115,000 years, older than similar finds in south and north Africa associated with Homo sapiens.

The dating shows they came from a time when Neanderthals lived in western Europe.   

“According to our new data Neanderthals and modern humans shared symbolic thinking and must have been cognitively indistinguishable,” said Joao Zilhao, a researcher from the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies in Barcelona who was involved in both studies.

Future studies could reveal many more caves where art was likely done by Neanderthals, said study co-author Paul Pettitt of Durham University.   

“We have examples in three caves 700 kilometers apart, and evidence that it was a long-lived tradition. It is quite possible that similar cave art in other caves in Western Europe is of Neanderthal origin as well,” he said.

“Neanderthals created meaningful symbols in meaningful places. The art is not a one-off accident.”

 By AFP's Kerry Sheridan 

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HISTORY

Why Spain is still in the wrong time zone because of Hitler

As Spain again prepares to put the clocks forward on Saturday night, we look at the fascinating reasons why the country has been in the wrong time zone for the last 75 years, the possible effects of this historical blip on Spanish society, and why there's still no sign of it changing.

Nazi leader German Chancellor Adolf Hitler (R) shakes hands with Spanish Generalísimo Francisco Franco at Hendaye train station on the French-Spanish border in October 1940. (Photo by AFP)
Nazi leader German Chancellor Adolf Hitler (R) shakes hands with Spanish Generalísimo Francisco Franco at Hendaye train station on the French-Spanish border in October 1940. (Photo by AFP)

Why is Spain in the wrong time zone?

Madrid lies directly south of London. Spain is geographically in line with the UK and Portugal. It makes sense, then, that Spain was in the Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) zone until around 75 years ago.

But that all changed in 1940. With Nazi Germany occupying Belgium, Holland, and recently invading France, Spain’s own facist dictator, Francisco Franco, travelled to the French border to meet with Hitler, the man he and many other believed would go on to dominate Europe.

The momentum was clearly with the Nazis, at the time, and Italy had already pledged its support to Hitler. Although he wanted the same from Spain, Franco, however, didn’t have much to offer. With the country ravaged by its own recent Civil War – in which Franco’s victory was heavily supported by Hitler –  Franco felt obliged to make a gesture of some sort.

Although ultimately remaining neutral in the war, Franco decided to show his support for Hitler by agreeing to put Spain’s clocks forward by an hour in an act of solidarity with Nazi Germany. 

Spain has remained in the Central European Time zone ever since, in line with countries as far east as Poland. That means that Madrid currently has the same time as Warsaw in Poland 2,290km away but is one hour ahead of Lisbon which is only 502 km away. 

The consequences of Spain being in the wrong time zone

But Franco’s decision all those years ago isn’t just a quirk of Spanish history, or testament to the extent to which the legacy of that period still looms over Spanish society, it was a decision that, experts say, has had a lasting impact on Spanish culture and society that underpins everything from Spaniard’s sleep cycles and meal times to the country’s birth rates and economic growth.

In recent years there have been calls to make the switch back to GMT because many believe the time zone quirk is affecting Spaniard’s productivity and quality of life. In 2013 a Spanish national commission concluded that Spaniards sleep almost an hour less than the European average, and that this led to increased stress, concentration problems, both at school and work, and workplace accidents.

Some experts believe this explains the Spanish dependence on siestas – that is, that the lack of sleep makes them necessary – but in reality the siesta has been a consistent feature of Spanish life for centuries for many of the same reasons it still is today: in southern Spain, the fierce summer temperatures make it necessary to stay at home during the afternoon. 

Spain's most famous clock is the Puerta del Sol in central Madrid. Photo: Jorge Franganillo/Flickr
Spain’s most famous clock is at the Puerta del Sol in central Madrid. Photo: Jorge Franganillo/Flickr

One effect of the siesta however is that the break in the day means Spaniards work the most hours in Europe yet at one of the continent’s lowest levels of productivity. A lack of sleep contributes to siesta taking which, in turn, means Spaniards work later into the evening and could partly explain Spain’s notoriously nocturnal lifestyles and late meal times. 

Despite the country running on CET, Spaniards’ eating patterns roughly mirror GMT. Many Spaniards eat lunch at what would be 1 or 1.30pm in London (the traditional 2 or 2.30pm in Spain) and dinner at a reasonable 8pm in London (but 9pm or even 10pm as is customary in many parts of Spain).

Making the change and returning to GMT would, according to Nuria Chinchilla, professor at Spain’s IESE business school, help Spaniards “return to the natural order of our circadian rhythm (our 24-hour physiological cycle) that goes with the sun… and the sun in Greenwich, not Germany”.

“If we don’t (change to GMT) we lengthen the day, eat very late and then don’t sleep,” she added.

Why hasn’t Spain moved to the right time zone yet?

The debate about which time zone Spain belongs in was reinvigorated following recent proposals at the EU level to scrap entirely the daylight savings custom. 

In 2018 the EU Commission announced a proposal to abolish the custom after polling showed that 80 percent of Europeans are in favour of staying permanently on summer time.This debate naturally had many in Spain wondering about whether they were in the right time zone.

But owing to a combination of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brexit, and various other bureaucratic difficulties, the proposal was shelved. Member states cannot decide unilaterally on the question of daylight savings, but they can decide which timezone they want to be in. 

Spain has had various commissions over the years exploring the impact of daylight savings and timezones, but no concrete proposals over a return to GMT have ever been made, despite the benefits experts claim it could bring.

Although the government’s focus has been drawn by more pressing issues in recent years – and the issue of time and daylight savings shelved at the European level – expect discussion of whether Spain is actually even in the right time zone this weekend when the clocks do go back, or if the linked issue of daylight savings is eventually taken off the shelf at the European level.

Article by Conor Faulkner

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