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Photo of the skull of a female Neanderthal in a cave in Gibralter.

Neanderthal bones rest in a cave in Gibraltar where a cross-hatched carving likely made by Neanderthals was found.

Photograph by Kenneth Garrett, National Geographic

Dan Vergano

National Geographic

Published September 1, 2014

An engraving carved into dolomite stone more than 39,000 years old in a seaside Gibraltar cave suggests that Neanderthals were capable of symbolic thinking—once thought unique to modern humans, researchers reported Monday.

Neanderthals, extinct human cousins who left genetic traces in modern people, seem to have vanished from Europe around 40,000 years ago. That was around the time early modern humans arrived. (See: "Neanderthals Died Out About 10,000 Years Earlier Than Thought, With Help From Modern Humans.")

Among the advantages that may have allowed those new arrivals to out-compete the Neanderthals were symbolic thought and language. But the cross-hatched cave carving, reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, points to art and symbolic thought among Neanderthals as well. (Related: "Why Am I Neanderthal?")

"Originally, we could not quite believe what we had found and had to convince ourselves it was real," says Gibraltar Museum director Clive Finlayson, who headed the study team. "Is it art? Is it a doodle? I don't know, but it is clearly an abstract design."

When Neanderthals lived inside what is now Gorham's Cave, the site of the discovery, the region was rich with prey, mostly deer, but also predators such as hyenas. The researchers discovered the engraving in excavations on a small ledge nearly 330 feet (100 meters) into the cave.

"We can definitely say it is more than 39,000 years old, a time when there were no modern humans near Gibraltar," Finlayson says. A soil layer above the bedrock ledge contains Neanderthal tools, the team reports, and chemical analysis of the carving's patina points to its age.

"I think that this will stir up an extremely lively controversy, and people will no doubt argue," says paleoanthropologist Gilliane Monnier of the University of Minnesota, an expert on ancient stone tools. She thinks it's likely that the engraving is the work of Neanderthals, and agrees it dates to their era.

Monnier adds by email, "This is a very legitimate claim, on the authors' part."

Prodigal Cousins

Early modern people made cave art throughout Europe and traded shell beads as far back as 75,000 years ago in Africa. Neanderthals didn't leave much behind in the way of decoration, in contrast, although they did care for their infirm and bury their dead. (Related: "Surprise! 20 Percent of Neanderthal Genome Lives On in Modern Humans, Scientists Find.")

What evidence exists for Neanderthal symbolic thought is much disputed—hints of ochre pigments seen at burial sites, for example, may have been left over from tanning hides. And debate has simmered for decades over whether hand stencils and carvings from about 40,800 years ago in Spain's El Castillo cave were made by Neanderthals or early modern humans. No bones or tools remain at the site to help settle the dispute.

But now, underneath a layer of Neanderthal "rubbish" at Gorham's Cave, says Finlayson, the study team found the cross-hatched carving of lines roughly six inches (15 centimeters) long. "These are abstract, almost geometric shapes," he says.

Tests with copies of Neanderthal stone points show that the carving was made by stone points being dragged across the ledge's hard dolomite at least 54 times. Experiments also show that cutting skins against the dolomite would not have produced the pointed grooves of the engraving.

Photo of Neanderthal rock engraving from Gorham’s Cave, Gibraltar.
This is the first abstract design found that could not have been made by modern humans.
Photograph courtesy Stuart Finlayson

Mounting Evidence

The analysis was very detailed and suggests the cross-hatching could not have been made by animals, says carbon dating expert Tom Higham of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. "The markings are significant if made by Neanderthals and would add to the increasing amount of information implying that they were capable of thinking in more or less abstract ways."

The team suggests the ledge at the rear of the cave is where Neanderthals rested, protected behind fires at night from Europe's long-ago predators: lions, hyenas, and wolves. "It was a perfect place to rest and carve something," Finlayson says.

No evidence exists that modern humans were in this region of Europe more than 39,000 years ago, which leaves only Neanderthals to explain the engraving.

The study says this is the first abstract design found that could not have been made by modern humans, concluding, "It follows that the ability for abstract thought was not exclusive."

Follow Dan Vergano on Twitter.

41 comments
Dorian Garcia
Dorian Garcia

if you read carefully you will notice that 


"A soil layer above the bedrock ledge contains Neanderthal tools" 


- if the carvings are done by modern humans, how can the tools be found in a layer of bedrock that is produced after the carvings?.....as this clearly sits on top;


and "chemical analysis of the carving's patina points to its age." - this chemical test actually tells you how old the carvings are.......................

Ripu Simiyu
Ripu Simiyu

What if Neanderthals were really more intelligent than the so called modern human beings?  After all they had bigger brains, and were in every sense more robust as humans.  They were probably a sanguine happy go lucky lot who met they final fate with the arrival of the less intelligent, but infinitely more violent, greedy and aggressive modern humans who simply wiped them out...

The caricatures we see of Neanderthals today are a final attempt by modern human beings to cover up their past history of genocide against Neanderthals, by claiming that somehow their brow ridges,  bigger eyes and bigger noses might explain their sudden and complete disappearance from the face of the earth after existing for millions of years!

Frank Ohlgren
Frank Ohlgren

Why always go for the most complex explanation?  I see marks on a cutting board.  We know Neanderthals used simple stone cutters.  Couldn't this simply have been a place used over and over to cut up their hunting kills?

James Hughes
James Hughes

It is obvious that they were bored on rainy days, and were just playing tit-tat-too !!

Steven Oliver
Steven Oliver

OK, so its a seasonal tide level chart. cool.

Christopher Blackwell
Christopher Blackwell

It is always fun when our assumptions about our privative ancestors  turn out to just be our own need to stereotype that we are the advanced ones.


Just like the discovery that the Romans did not bring civilization to Briton it already was to some extent civilized and was only held back by greedy Romans who wanted to tax it to death. So we keep on learning.


Recently restudying the skeletons of  dead Viking warriors, they discovered that half of them were women. Not surprisingly as it was also common among the Celts and the German tribes. All of them believed the woman's proper place was in the battlefield.


Apparently our ancient ancestors did not have our hangups about the proper gender roles for everyone.

Peter Tsouras
Peter Tsouras

It seems that an awful lot of conclusions have been based on a Neanderthal game of tic tack toe. 

Reynaldo Ronquillo
Reynaldo Ronquillo

That is just a #hashtag not to hard to draw even for a neanderthal like me..


maybe they are posting on twitter...

Amy Gorin
Amy Gorin

that rock didn't start a fire

this rock didn't start a fire

nope, this rock didn't start a fire

this other rock didn't start a fire

this one didn't start a fire either


damn, this was so much easier in the old cave


this rock...


Michael Cohen
Michael Cohen

All these so called scientists are interested in is their research grants, the truth about human history does not interest them. If it did they would be investigating  the underwater pyramids found off Japan and Cuba. Human civilization goes back tens of thousands of years and there were great advanced civilizations such as Atlantis.

If you read MAPS OF THE ANCIENT SEA KINGS  by Professor Charles Hapgood, he proves that all the 16th-19th century world maps showed a Antarctica without its ice cover. The last time the continent was ice free was millions of years ago. Somebody or something drew these maps of the continent and the geographers had access to this information and used them on the maps.

Darth Vader
Darth Vader

I like this sentance here: "No evidence exists that modern humans were in this region of Europe more than 39,000 years ago, which leaves only Neanderthals to explain the engraving."  Couldn't this be evidence for modern man?  Why do you have to change your opinion of neanderthals to fit this carving?

Jose Rene Mata
Jose Rene Mata

thats not even ROCKet science... thats a tic-tac-toe board... or surface... whatever...

Bee Nezz
Bee Nezz

There were hundreds of bones found here in NZ they were not claimed by the Maori, and they were long here before they came, " THEY" crushed these bones up and the history along with the bones was buried and destroyed, these bones were from white people with red hair, but like everything that the powers to be, can cover up,protecting religious and land claims to who was here first... Could you imagine the ' Hew an Cry" if NZ was to ever announce that a race of white men with red hair was here first..I believe ( and I don't give a s*** what anybody else says), that when the Maori came here, there wasn't any meat, and because they are traditionally a violent race of people, they killed and ate this race of people and destroyed their very existence, wiping them out of  NZ's history books..

Gary Laughlin
Gary Laughlin

 Not only abstract symbology but strategic gaming.  Tic-Tac-Toe appears to have ancient roots!

Ruth Aguiar
Ruth Aguiar

I still don't understand WHY modern humans, a very recent species, think they are the only living species able to think, think abstractly, communicate, feel, and so on. I really think they must be the only species with enough stupidity to use their evolved brains to think so.

David Hicks
David Hicks

Looks like the Neanderthals were beginning a game of Tic, Tac, Toe. 

Marcos Toledo
Marcos Toledo

Just waiting for the first Neanderthal Cave painting to be confrimed

Anthony Ciulla
Anthony Ciulla

I don't know why anthropologists can't acknowledge Neanderthals didn't have abstract thought.  The fact that they had a technology of tanning animal skins is evidence of this.  So is their complex tool-making, burial, and hunting technologies.  

S Lee
S Lee

And again. So much of what we "knew" about Neanderthals was based on nothing more than 19th century European myths about race. 


Most of those racial myths have been laid to rest among intelligent, educated people today, so why do so many people still have trouble wrapping their minds around the fact that there was another very intelligent species (probably more than one) of humans not so very long ago?

maria kaeek
maria kaeek

I think that this is true the cosmos is full with hidden things

Nat Turner
Nat Turner

Some researchers said

"the artifacts may not have been made by Neanderthals 

but by modern humans."

Until the truth of that be known,

it is too soon to re write human history,

However 2001 in South Africa, 

at a site called Blombos Cave, 

is found 70,000 year old writing and art on 

"two pieces of ochre rock decorated with geometric patterns."

The patterns could in no way be considered to be accidental

or anything other than deliberate.

Maybe the re write should have already began.

http://www.accessexcellence.org/WN/graphics/caveart.gif

Full article

http://www.accessexcellence.org/WN/SU/caveart.php

Justin Smith
Justin Smith

So the phrase, "X marks the spot"  started way before we originally  thought.  

Kyle Hineman
Kyle Hineman

@Christopher Blackwell I didn't see a single reference to vikings, Romans or gender roles. So how does your comment pertain to this article in ANY way

Kyle Hineman
Kyle Hineman

@Michael Cohen and this "so called" professor also spent ten years working with New England medium. Elwood Babbitt attempting to make contact with notable figures from the past????
 

Kyle Hineman
Kyle Hineman

@Darth Vader Perhaps intelligent, educated people do change their opinions when confronted with new information and evidence.

Michael M
Michael M

@Darth Vader The only thing these marks are evidence for, is that there was someone capable of making these marks in the area at a specific time frame in this particular place. It's misleading to say these marks are evidence of modern humans in the area.

Now, it could be these marks were made by modern man, and we just haven't found any other evidence for them, but considering (according to this article at least) that hasn't been found, that is not what the evidence currently points towards. Given what we currently know, these marks most likely are of Neanderthal origin.

Gary Laughlin
Gary Laughlin

The other potential is....it is the first real estate contract.  I can see it in my mind as it developed.  Bunch of folks in a cave getting really close and edgy and it was time to set some ground rules.

  "Look...you all have this section of the cave, we have this one and the Smithderhals have this one.  The center section is common place for the fire and cooking.  The kids need a place, being newly married and all so they get the back section....

   ...and we're going to carve it into this bench here so everybody knows the ground rules agreed to for our collective arrangement...got it?!

Gwendolyn Mugliston
Gwendolyn Mugliston

@Nat Turner It seems attribution is going the way of critical thought.  You are right.  Much earlier in South Africa.  Good on you for noting the information. 

Mary Kay Kelly
Mary Kay Kelly

Why have they not thought of these scenarios. These make so much more sense.

Kyle Hineman
Kyle Hineman

@Mary Kay Kelly I am constantly amazed by the number of people who spend three minutes reading an article and decide they know more than the people who have devoted a lifetime of study to the question at hand.

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