But a provocative story in The New York Times reports that the prehistoric cave art of Europe — with its red disks, handprints, club-like symbols and geometric patterns — is much older than previously thought, being painted at least 40,000 years ago.
This puts the Neanderthals, who became extinct about 30,000 years ago, as living at the same time as homo sapiens. That in turn raises the extraordinary possibility that the cave artists were themselves Neanderthals.
Neanderthals as artists or interior decorators? It is a shocking suggestion. What’s next? That these close relatives of ours, previously dismissed as stocky of build, hairy of body and dim of brain, had their sensitive side and possibly used prehistoric grooming aids? Of course, it will take more research to confirm such an upsetting idea, and this will require more grants, scholarships, symposiums and conventions, the latter perhaps involving hospitality suites if scientists are anything like journalists.
The existence of a separate species or at least human subspecies who lived for some time in close proximity to our ancestors has always been challenging to our sense of ourselves.
The truth is that Neanderthals were frighteningly like us in some ways and indeed are part of us today. DNA testing has determined that all of us share some Neanderthal genes, the result of prehistoric hanky-panky among our ancestors.
What this proves is that the nights were really dark back then. You might think that the most fearsome sight in the cave community was the saber-toothed tiger, but more likely it was a Neanderthal woman wearing a thong.
Some people obviously have more Neanderthal genes than other people — and you know who you are. And if Mrs. Henry is reading this, don’t think for a minute that I am going to wax my chest and back hair. I see it as honoring the ancients.
The Neanderthals were our kissing cousins and all of us should welcome news that they may have been the earliest artists. It is way past time they got their due.
The Neanderthals are thought to have become extinct due to competition from our ancestors who were less strong but much smarter. It was, in short, the greatest revenge of the nerds in unrecorded history. Forever after, the Neanderthals have been pilloried as lowbrow brutes.
But my own theory is that the Neanderthals’ artistic sensitivity was their undoing. Obviously, they made the mistake of having a cave opening and inviting the homo sapiens over, a species inclined to being critics since time immemorial.
Of course, the Neanderthals couldn’t serve wine and cheese but would have had curdled reindeer products and some adult beverage such as fermented moss.
Confronted with a picture of stenciled human handprints on the cave walls, a prehistoric human critic wearing a prehistoric beret and the latest in furs would have said: “Now what is the artist trying to say in this piece? It’s as if he sees himself as the master tool maker at the center of a fluid cosmos, putting a signature onto his space as much as the woolly mammoth puts his footprint onto his world.”
Whereupon, the Neanderthal artist, nervously scratching his head with his spear, said: “No, Ug just like getting hands in paint.”
Unabashed, the prehistoric critic went on: “Why, darling, just look at these gorgeous red disks. They are so — how shall I say? — primitive. They are ghosts of the moon rotating around the tracks of Mother Earth. They also remind me that I must invent the wheel one of these days.”
With each grand pronouncement, the Neanderthal artist would become more baffled and demoralized. With this process continued over tens of thousands of years, the Neanderthals were doomed by artistic ennui born of a lack of creative confidence. They could not keep up with the new artistic trends. Even the joyous call that a mammoth had fallen into the bog could not raise them from creative torpor.
Neanderthals, the first artists and the first to die for their art.
Reg Henry is a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist.