A red hand stencil. A series of lines that look like a ladder. A collection of red dots.
These images, painted in ocher on the walls of three separate caves in Spain, are the oldest-known examples of cave art ever found. And new research suggests that all three were created not by humans, but by our ancient cousins the Neanderthals.
In a paper published Thursday in Science, an international team of archaeologists shows that each of the three paintings was executed at least 64,000 years ago -- more than 20,000 years before the first modern humans arrived in Europe.
"This work confirms that Neanderthals were indeed using cave walls for depicting drawings that had meaning for them," said Marie Soressi, an archaeologist at Leiden University in the Netherlands who was not involved in the study. "It also means that our own group, the one we call anatomically modern humans, is maybe not so special."
For most of the last century, researchers have argued that our Neanderthal cousins were intellectually inferior to their modern human contemporaries -- incapable of symbolic thought and possibly devoid of language. This, in turn, was used to explain why the Neanderthals disappeared from Eurasia about 40,000 years ago, not long after modern humans arrived there.
However, archaeological evidence revealed over the last two decades tells a different story. We now know that Neanderthals were sophisticated hunters who knew how to control fire, and that they adorned themselves with jewelry and took care to bury their dead.
In addition, genetic evidence suggests that modern humans and Neanderthals were similar enough that they interbred with some frequency. Indeed, if you are of European or Asian descent, it is likely that roughly 2 percent of your genome comes from Neanderthal ancestors.
Still, Soressi said the discovery that at least three instances of known cave art were created by Neanderthals is significant.
"The one criteria left that would have distinguished Neanderthals and early modern humans was the interest and need to draw symbols deep in the underground," she said.
Thanks to the new discovery, she added, we now know that Neanderthals and modern humans had that in common as well.