Neanderthals might have been making some of Europe’s oldest art thousands of years before the arrival of humans.

Though their meaning will likely never be known, the lines drawn on a cave wall show that the creation of art isn’t limited to just our species.

Finger painting may have been the height of artistic expression over 50,000 years ago.

Impressions made by fingers tracing a variety of shapes on soft clay walls, the cave art found in La Roche-Cotard, France, is thought to be among some of the oldest in western Europe.

It’s so old that the scientists behind the study believe that it predates the arrival of our own species in the region, and so would have been made by Neanderthals instead. While any meaning of the engravings has been lost to time, the art provides further evidence that our closest relatives were more complex than first thought.

Dr Jean-Claude Marquet, the lead author of a paper documenting the art, says, ‘The engravings discovered at La Roche-Cotard are the earliest evidence of Neanderthal engravings, with only one other known from Gibraltar almost 20,000 years later.’

‘The number of lines, their organisation into panels, and the succession of these lines in the cave testifies to a thoughtful and organised approach. These lines were not made at random.’

The findings of the study were published in the journal Plos One.

The changing view of Neanderthals

Long before Homo sapiens first arrived in Europe, the continent was home to the Neanderthals. Fossils of their early ancestors found in Spain have been dated to around 430,000 years ago, though their split from our species happened hundreds of thousands of years earlier.

By around 130,000 years ago, the species was becoming firmly established. Neanderthals spread out over time, with fossils known from across Europe and parts of Asia and the Middle East.

Though they may have a historic representation of being unintelligent cavemen, that’s changed in the past couple of decades. Neanderthals are now known to have had distinctive tools, lived in small communitiesmade their own jewellery, and perhaps even had cultural beliefs.

Their artistic prowess also extended beyond carving and into paintings. Painted handprints and shapes found on the wall of caves in Spain have been dated to at least 65,000 years old, which is thought to be much earlier than modern humans were living in the region.

There are, however, concerns over authorship with some suggestions that art attributed to Neanderthals was actually made by an early population of Homo sapiens. Partly, this is a result of changing scientific opinion over what the Neanderthals were capable of.

‘When I carried out several excavations at La Roche-Cotard in the 1970s, I didn’t work on the engravings,’ Jean-Claude says. ‘Asking a specialist in prehistoric art to work with me would have been misunderstood because the idea that Neanderthals could have been artists was completely out of the question at the time.’

There’s also the difficulty of interpreting what ‘art’ actually is. A rock and bone artefact also discovered at La Roche-Cotard stirred the debate. With a passing resemblance to a human face, some scientists have claimed that the object was a mask, while others have suggested it was more likely a weight or toy.

After a long hiatus, Jean-Claude resumed excavations at the site in 2008 with a new team of researchers, who hope they’ve assembled enough evidence to convince even the most sceptical about the authors of the engravings.

Are the engravings definitely Neanderthal art?

The art is found on one of the longest walls inside the cave, away from the entrance. This long wall appears to have been divided into several panels based upon the different markings on the wall, which the researchers have interpreted as a sign the art was intentionally made.

The ‘fossil’ panel, for instance, is formed of lines focused around a bivalve fossil embedded in the wall, while the ‘triangular’ panel features a series of parallel lines.

While a few of the panels feature animal claw marks, the shape and size of the lines, or flutings, is consistent with a human finger. The team believe that the differences in the amount of pressure used across the panels, and the apparent avoidance of some areas, is evidence that this was made intentionally.

Though the art’s creators may have simply been trying to scrape something off the walls, using individual fingers to do so would have been very inefficient. In addition, if they were trying to get something off the walls, the flutings seem too patterned to result from resource extraction.

Whatever the marks were for, its creators would have had to have been in the cave at least 57,000 years ago when sediment from the nearby Loire River sealed the cave from the outside. Mousterian tools made by the Neanderthals have also been found inside the cave, suggesting they were certainly present at some point before this date.

Despite this it is possible that modern humans could also have been present. They are known to have been in southern France for a brief period around 54,000 years ago, and while there is currently no evidence they moved any further north, it can’t be ruled out.

The researchers argue, however, that other evidence points to the Neanderthals.

‘There are very clear clues that confirm that only Neanderthals can be the artists,’ Jean-Claude says. ‘Most importantly, the cave entrance was closed thousands of years before Homo sapiens are known from the area. The artwork itself is probably even older, at around 75,000 years old.’

The lessons learned from La Roche-Cotard could help to identify similar art in other locations, and increase our understanding of Neanderthal behaviour.