The origins
of art

The Wall of the Hands in the cave of El Castillo (Puente Viesgo, Cantábria) shows some of the most ancient paintings of the world. Dated between 40,800 and 37,300 years old, it is very likely that they were the work of Neanderthals. Photo: Miguel A. de Arriba. Sociedad Regional de Educación, Cultura y Deporte, SL. Gobierno de Cantabria

Did you know that before they came into contact with us, about 40,000 years ago, Neanderthals already used dyes, pigments and pendants? In addition, they were the first to mark the walls with geometric signs and silhouettes of hands.

A great deal of uncertainty surrounds the birth of symbolic behaviour. The metaphorical use of figurative art to share ideas of the natural and the cultural world seems unquestionable. But are there any other precedents? Are colouring materials, ornaments, or the first geometric signs early forms of symbolism?

At some point in prehistory colouring materials became paints, but they also had other uses. Therefore, their early onset does not necessarily mean the presence of artists.

The symbolism of the early ornaments appears more likely, if, in addition to the aesthetic values, they were used as signs of identity. A similar symbolism is also evoked by the geometric shapes that our African ancestors drew on pieces of ochre and containers (ostrich eggshells) between 100,000 and 60,000 years ago.

Neanderthal woman manipulating pigments. Author: Ramon López

The evolution of prehistoric art


Anatomically modern humans appeared about 200,000 years ago in the south of the African continent.Thanks to our capacity for socialization, communication and adaptation to new media, we were the first and only to colonize all continents.

Neanderthals appeared about 300,000 years ago on the European continent. They were humans perfectly adapted to their time and landscape, with highly evolved capabilities, which even expanded to the Near East and West Asia.

At various times from 70,000 years ago we crossed each other in our expansion and even reached an offspring of which now there are still remains in our own genome. Neanderthals disappeared around 30,000 years ago, and the Iberian Peninsula was the last place they inhabited.

Comparative graph of a Neanderthal skull and an anatomically modern human skull.