When it comes to art, there’s often no accounting for taste. Art critics and philosophers aren’t the only people who debate what is or isn’t art; anthropologists do as well. This debate has significant consequences for understanding the origin of art and, ultimately, the origin of humanity.
Many anthropologists consider artistic expression a defining feature of modern humans. Based on recent studies, however, others maintain that Neanderthals (and maybe even Homo erectus) possessed the capacity to make art (or at least proto-art) as evinced by markings on bedrock and marine shells. But are these markings really art? And if they are art, must they be attributed to these hominids?
A number of Christian scholars (myself included) consider artistic expression a reflection of the image of God—a quality unique to modern humans. But if Neanderthals (and even H. erectus) made art, the idea of human uniqueness, and with it the scientific credibility the Bible’s view of humanity, would face serious questions.
Neanderthal Rock Engravings
Recently, researchers from Spain discovered hatch marks made in the bedrock of Gorham’s Cave of Gibraltar.1 The markings are more than 39,000 years old. The layer immediately above the bedrock dated between 30,000 and 38,000 years old and contained Neanderthal-produced artifacts, leading the team to conclude that these hominids made the markings.
This is not the first time anthropologists have made such a claim. In the summer of 2012, researchers from Spain and the UK announced the discovery of evidence for Neanderthal cave art in multiple Spanish cave sites. But there are problems with this assertion (see here). Likewise, the most recent claim faces challenges.
First, it is debatable if the hatch marks reflect the capacity for symbolism and, hence, artistic expression. It seems they were made intentionally and do appear to display a geometric patterning—but, the “artist’s” intent is unclear. Did he or she mean to communicate anything at all by making those marks? Could the geometric quality of the patterns be coincidental? Not to be trite, but my English bulldog has occasionally left geometric-looking scratch marks on our furniture. Though Archie scratched the furniture on purpose, it would be very hard to argue that he was engaged in artistic expression. Why couldn’t we interpret the cave markings the same way?
For the sake of argument, let us assume the engravings demonstrate symbolism. Can these cut marks rightly be attributed to the work of Neanderthals? Not really. The latest dating of Neanderthal remains indicates that these hominids went extinct in Iberia well over 40,000 years ago. If so, then there is no way Neanderthals could have produced hatch marks that were 39,000 years old.
It makes better sense to attribute the “motifs” in the bedrock to modern humans, particularly because the archeological record indicates that we have been engaged in symbolism for at least 80,000 years (even, possibly, since we first appeared on Earth around 130,000 years ago). On the other hand, there is no evidence for Neanderthal symbolism. (Recent analysis now suggests that the so-called Chatelperronian culture, which included symbolism, never existed.) Archeological evidence for Neanderthal use of symbolism appears to be artificial, arising from the mixing of cave layers. Artifacts produced by modern humans have been mistakenly attributed to Neanderthals.
A recent study supports modern humans as the source of the bedrock engarvings.2 Based on improved radiocarbon dating methodology, it looks as if modern humans made their way into Europe closer to 44,000 years ago (traditional understanding held to 40,000 years ago). This earlier arrival would have given modern humans plenty of time to produce the hatch marks in Gorham’s Cave.
Marine Shell Engravings Made by H. erectus?
Late in the fall of 2014, researchers from the Netherlands reported on the discovery of engravings on a marine shell that dates to 540,000 years ago.3 They attributed these markings to H. erectus. This shell was part of a collection unearthed by Eugene Duboisin the 1890s. Dubois collected shells near the same location where he discovered the first H. erectus remains (a skull cap). At that time, Dubois recovered nearly 200 articulated shells, valves, and shell fragments.
Recently, researchers re-examined Dubois’ collection (which includes 11 freshwater mussel species) and discovered perforations located just above the anterior abductor muscle in many of the shells. It looked as if these hominids used something sharp, such as a shark tooth, to puncture the shell in such a way as to damage the muscle used to keep the valves closed, making it easy to open the mussel and gain access to the fleshly part of the organism. This is impressive behavior—yet it is on par with activities observed in wild chimpanzees and, therefore, not troubling for the biblical view of human uniqueness.
The question is whether the engravings discovered on one of the marine shells evince artistic expression on the part of H. erectus. It appears that the “artist” made intentional geometric patterns on the shell. Sediment within the shell dates to 540,000 years in age. On this basis, there is no way to attribute the patterns to modern humans. It truly appears that the H. erectus made the markings.
Are these markings truly art or is their geometric pattern merely happenstance? Of nearly 200 shells and shell fragments, only one displays any supposedly artistic markings at all. If these markings reflect some sort of inherent capabilities on the part of their maker, why are they unique to a single shell? In fact, to my knowledge, no other erectine archeological site—anywhere in the world—shows any evidence for symbolism or even proto-symbolism.
When all the evidence is critically examined, only modern humans display the capacity for artistic expression. And only human beings can debate about what is and isn’t art.
- Joaquín Rodríguez-Vidal et al., “A Rock Engraving Made by Neanderthals in Gibraltar,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 111 (September 16, 2014): 13301–6.
- Philip R. Nigst et al., “Early Modern Human Settlement of Europe North of the Alps Occurred 43,500 Years Ago in a Cold Steppe-Style Environment,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 111 (October 7, 2014): 14394–99.
- Josephine C. A. Joordens et al., “Homo erectus at Trinil on Java Used Shells for Tool Production and Engraving,” Nature, published online December 3, 2014, DOI:10.1038/nature13962, https://www.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nature13962.html.