More than 65,000 years ago, a Neanderthal reached out and made strokes in red ochre on the wall of a cave, and in doing so, became the first known artist on Earth, scientists claim.
The discovery overturns the widely-held belief that modern humans are the only species to have expressed themselves through works of art.
In caves separated by hundreds of miles, Neanderthals daubed, drew and spat paint on walls producing artworks, the researchers say, tens of thousands of years before modern humans reached the sites.
The finding, described as a “major breakthrough in the field of human evolution” by an expert who was not involved in the research, makes the case for a radical retelling of the human story, in which the behaviour of modern humans differs from the Neanderthals by the narrowest of margins.
Paul Pettit, professor of palaeolithic archaeology at Durham University. “The most important question still remains, however. What were Neanderthals doing in the depths of dark and dangerous caves if it wasn’t ritual, and what does that imply?”
Historically, works of art and symbolic thinking have been held up as proof of the cognitive superiority of modern humans – examples of the exceptional skills that define our species. Neanderthals, by comparison, have suffered a bad press since the first skeletons were unearthed in the Neander valley near Düsseldorf in the 19th century. While the German biologist Ernst Haeckel failed to convince his fellow scientists to name the species Homo stupidus, Neanderthals were still described as incapable of moral or theistic conceptions, and depicted as knuckle-dragging apemen.