Did the Neanderthals Teach Our Human Ancestors the Art of Cave Painting?

First reconstruction of Neanderthal man, Hermann Schaaffhausen, 1888, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

There are two interesting studies that taken together suggest that humans learnt the art of painting from a now extinct archaic hominid species known as Homo Neanderthalensis otherwise known as the Neanderthals. In the first study  published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Professor Roebeks and colleagues identified Red Ochre material in a Neanderthal site in Holland dating back an estimated 250,000 years. Analysis of the specimens suggested that the material may have been transported from a site some 20km away suggesting that the Neanderthals were mining this material. The significance of red ochre is that it is bright red in colour and that it can be used as a paint. Indeed an earlier find at a Neanderthal site from 50,000 years ago shows that it was used as a cosmetic application with the red ochre tracings identified on a shell and complemented by a yellow pigment. Red Ochre is derived from a clay material which needs to be prepared by heating. The second study involved an analysis of the Nerja Cave paintings from a site in Andalusia in Spain by Professor Jose Luis Sanchidrian.

The second study was disseminated via a press release rather than a published article at the current time. Charcoal material near paintings of seals identified on a stalagmite stalactite was dated in the USA and the estimate suggests the material was approximately 42,000 years old. This predates the earliest known cave paintings by almost 10,000 years these later paintings being attributed to the ancestors of modern humans. Since the Nerja Caves were later inhabited by humans, this increases the likelihood of such transmission of culture either through cohabitation or by humans learning through observation of prior artwork. The Paabo study, suggesting that up to 5% of human DNA was inherited from Neanderthals and various pieces of evidence increasingly support the hypothesis that human ancestors and Neanderthals interbred up to 250,000 years after their initial evolutionary divergence. Multiple lines of evidence point to the early use of Red Ochre by Neanderthals and this latest evidence of use dating back 250,000 years can be difficult to conceptualise. However the cranial capacity of Neanderthals has been the largest of any hominid species including humans and tool use has been consistently demonstrated in non-human primates including Chimpanzees which have a cranial capacity 1/3 the size of modern humans. Thus it is likely that both Neanderthals and humans from their very beginnings would have been capable of sophisticated tool use. The hypothesis that Neanderthals were pioneers in the use of materials such as red ochre as well as painting and that this knowledge was transmitted to humans has many interesting implications.

Media Responses to Studies Above


Videos Comparing Neanderthal, Cro-Magnon and Modern Human Skulls

Related Blog Posts

Further Reading (Neandertal and Neanderthal spellings are both valid)

  • Critique of Neanderthal predator theory.
  • PNAS paper on methodology for evaluating adaptive properties of Neandertal skulls.
  • Evidence that Shanidar 3 Neandertal sustained injuries from a low kinetic energy object.
  • Questioning the cold climate adaptation hypothesis of large Neandertal chests.
  • Dating of Belgian specimens.
  • Investigation of nasal aperture in Neandertals and cold adaptation.
  • Analysis of Italian early Neandertal Saccopastore 1 specimen
  • Analysis of thorax in Neandertals and humans and suggestion that this relates to activity levels in Neandertals.
  • Working memory and cognition in Neandertal (here and here).
  • Analysis of Peche De L’Aze 1 Neandertal child.
  • Analysis of Spanish Neandertal specimen.
  • Evidence of human/Neandertal admixture.
  • Analysis of a Spanish Neandertal mandible.
  • An article looking back at 150 years since the recogntion of the Neandertal.
  • Bite force varies according to size in both Neandertals and humans rather and not between the two.
  • Discussion of Mental Foramen in Neandertal and humans.
  • Paabo PNAS study on examination of Neander Valley specimens.
  • Article on cold adaptation. ‘it is estimated that Neandertals required 3,360 to 4,480 kcal per day to support strenuous winter foraging and cold resistance costs’.
  • Shanidar 3 and thoracic morphology in the Neandertal.
  • Isotope analysis suggesting that Neandertal diet consisted of herbivores.
  • Greater moment in the knees of Neandertals in the locomotor range compared to humans.
  • Analysis of the pelvis of two Israeli Neandertal specimens
  • The dentition of the old man of Chapelle-aux-saints.

Miscellaneous News Articles on Neandertals


  • 2007 ITN news report on Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA sequencing.
  • Reconstruction of the musculature. Great quote – ‘the pinky was just as strong as the other fingers’.
  • Recreating the Neanderthal face. Great quote – ‘This Neanderthal did not have a waist’.
  • Interview with John Hawks. Notes that over 400 Neanderthal skeletons have been found.
  • Footage of the cave in Vindija, Croatia.
  • Interview with John Hawks on the possible complexities of the Neanderthal-Human interactions.

An index of the site can be found here. The page contains links to all of the articles in the blog in chronological order. Twitter: You can follow ‘The Amazing World of Psychiatry’ Twitter by clicking on this link. Podcast: You can listen to this post on Odiogo by clicking on this link (there may be a small delay between publishing of the blog article and the availability of the podcast). It is available for a limited period. TAWOP Channel: You can follow the TAWOP Channel on YouTube by clicking on this link. Responses: If you have any comments, you can leave them below or alternatively e-mail justinmarley17@yahoo.co.uk. Disclaimer: The comments made here represent the opinions of the author and do not represent the profession or any body/organisation. The comments made here are not meant as a source of medical advice and those seeking medical advice are advised to consult with their own doctor. The author is not responsible for the contents of any external sites that are linked to in this blog.

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