/* */ Rosa Rubicondior: Refuting Creationism - Modern Humans Were Not the Only Aesthetic Species

Wednesday, 4 August 2021

Refuting Creationism - Modern Humans Were Not the Only Aesthetic Species

Flowstone formation in the Sala de las Estrellas at Cueva de Ardales (Malaga, Andalusia), with the traces of red pigment.
© João Zilhão, ICREA
Neanderthals indeed painted Andalusia’s Cueva de Ardales | CNRS

One of the evidence-free claims Creationism is forced into by virtue of dogma, is that modern humans are unique in several ways that sets them apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, as some sort of special creation; namely, sentience and self-awareness, aesthetic appreciation, and a sense of moral obligation.

However, the notion that we alone have self-awareness and are thus the only sentient species has long been discounted by animal behaviourists by demonstrating self-awareness and even complex puzzle-solving behaviour in many other, even non-mammalian, species such as octopuses, bees and several birds. But there has been an on-going debate in anthropology about exactly when aesthetic appreciation (or in lay terms, artistic appreciation and symbolism) first arose in the hominins. Until now, there were precious little evidence that anyone other than modern humans ever used symbolism and colour in any deliberate, representational way.

Now, however, a team of international scientists, including researchers from the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) have shown that red ochre pigments on stalactites in a cave in Andalucia, Spain, were taken there and applied deliberately on multiple occasions, at a time when only Neanderthals were present in Europe. As though, over a period of several thousand years, the site had special significance and needed regular restoration, indicating a long oral tradition lasting for a very long time.

The press release from CNRC explains:
The origin and date of appearance of prehistoric cave art are the subjects of ongoing debate. Spain’s Cueva de Ardales is one point of discussion. There a flowstone formation is stained red in places. This colouring is apparently almost 65,000 years old1 but until now, a part of the scientific community attributed it to a natural coating of iron oxide deposited by flowing water. However, that hypothesis has just been rejected by the findings of an international team of scientists including a CNRS researcher2. The team members analysed samples of red residues collected from the flowstone surface and compared them with iron oxide–rich deposits in the cave. They concluded that the ochre-based pigment was intentionally applied, i.e. painted—by Neanderthals, as modern humans had yet to make their appearance on the European continent—and that, importantly, it had probably been brought to the cave from an external source.

Furthermore, variations in pigment composition between samples were detected, corresponding to different dates of application, sometimes many thousands of years apart. Thus, it seems that many generations of Neanderthals visited this cave and coloured the draperies of the great flowstone formation with red ochre. This behaviour indicates a motivation to return to the cave and symbolically mark the site, and it bears witness to the transmission of a tradition down through the generations. The scientists’ findings have been published in PNAS on 2 August 2021.
65,000-year-old hand prints. Neanderthals made red paint from iron deposits and marked almost the entire cave with finger and hand imprints. Leaving signs for future visitors, they planned where to put these to avoid calcium deposits covering them. From the size and placement, scientists have determined that children, likely held in the arms of their Neanderthal parents, made some of the markings.
Sadly, the research paper is behind an expensive paywall. However, the abstract is available here. In it, the authors say:
The emergence of symbolic behavior in our genus is a controversial issue. The dating of paintings in three caves from the Iberian Peninsula supports the view that Neanderthals developed a form of cave art more than 20,000 years before the emergence of anatomical modernity in Europe. In this study, we confirm that the paintings on a large speleothem from one of these sites, Cueva de Ardales, were human made, and we show that the pigments do not come from the outcrops of colorant material known inside the cave. Variations in the composition of the paint correspond to differences in the age of the paintings, supporting the hypothesis that Neanderthals used the speleothems symbolically over an extended time span.
If their motive was religious we can only guess at what their beliefs were or why these speleothems were significant in some way, because, like all religions from cultures which left no written records we can translate, since there was no basis in reality for it, there is nothing upon which we can rebuild their set of core superstitions.

However, the major significance of this discovery is that this is the first tangible evidence that a species other than our own was sentient and could think symbolically. It also had a sense of obligation to uphold and maintain an oral tradition of significance. There are two possible explanations for this, none of which supports Creationism:
  • Neanerthals evolved this ability independently after we and they diverged from a common ancestor.
  • We both inherited it from our common ancestor.
Unless, of course, creationists want to argue that 65,000 or more years ago, Neanderthals were their god's special creation and it endowed them with the same special abilities it was to endow us with several tens of thousands of years later.

And then, of course, there is that little matter of how, like all the other cave paintings in France and Spain, it survived a catastrophic global flood just a few thousand years ago. It's almost as though that flood never happened and the Bible-based dogmas on which creationism is based are wrong!

Thank you for sharing!

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