Those Upscale Neanderthals: Cave paintings, Eagle talon ornaments, and Seafaring boats?


Cueva de Nerja. Image: Luzzyacentillo, Wikimedia Commons

Cave Paintings

Did Neanderthals paint images of seals on cave walls near Malaga, Spain? If so, it would be a stunning find. Our Homo sapiens ancestors created the oldest previously known cave paintings 30,000 years ago: the beautiful Chauvet paintings in southern France. The newly discovered paintings in the Nerja Caves near Malaga in southern Spain are, surprisingly, estimated to be around 43,000 ago - 13,000 years older than those of Chauvet.

However, there is one small problem: as far as we know, Homo sapiens was not known to be in that region of Spain 43,000 years ago. This strongly suggests Neanderthals created the paintings and thus possessed imagination and skill not previously attributed to them.

The paintings are believed to represent seals that would have been part of the Mediterranean Neanderthal diet. The seal paintings and additional views of the cathedral-like Nerja Caves can be seen here.

Researchers will attempt to confirm when the paintings were created by determining the age of the pigments. Some specialists caution Homo sapiens may have been in southern Spain during that time after all and could have painted the images.

Eagle Talon Ornaments

Recent evidence discovered by researchers from Trent University in Ontario, Canada and the Université Bordeaux in France suggests Neanderthals wore eagle talons as ornaments or jewelry. According to the researchers:

"… it seems reasonable to argue that Neanderthals in France and Italy regularly used terminal phalanges of birds of prey. … One possibility is that they were used as ornaments...”

The abstract published in PlosOne concludes:

Here we show that, in France, Neanderthals used skeletal parts of large diurnal raptors presumably for symbolic purposes… The presence of similar objects in other Middle Paleolithic contexts in France and Italy suggest that raptors were used as means of symbolic expression by Neanderthals in these regions.

Images of the eagle talons are here

Seafaring Boats

Not only could Neanderthals have painted images on caves walls and made talon ornaments, they may have also built seafaring boats!

Neanderthal stone tools have been found “on the Greek islands of Lefkada, Kefalonia and Zakynthos.” Until recently, it was believed that these islands were connected to the mainland during the Paleolithic which would have allowed Neanderthals to spread there easily. Now, researchers at the University of Patras in Greece believe they have ruled out this option. In a study published in the Journal of Archeological Science, the researchers found that “…when Neanderthals were in the region, the sea would have been at least 180 metres deep.”

If Neanderthals indeed reached these Mediterranean islands by boat, their seafaring would have reached distances from 5 to 12 kilometers from shore. They may have also reached Crete, an impressive 40-kilometer journey. How Neanderthal seafaring may have developed is suggested in the abstract:

Seafaring most likely started some time between 110 and 35 ka BP and the seafarers were the Neanderthals. Seafaring was encouraged by the coastal configuration, which offered the right conditions for developing seafaring skills according to the “voyaging nurseries” and “autocatalysis” concepts.

Neanderthals painting in cavernous cathedral-like caves, wearing furs and talon necklaces, feasting on seafood, and paddling boats in to reach pristine Mediterranean islands - now that's a new image of these “cave men.” Being called a Neanderthal may become upscale.