Neandertals Were Creative! Or were they?

We still don’t know. Don’t believe the headlines you read about a new scientific study of cave sketches by Neandertals.

The study itself is good, solid science: it demonstrates that Neandertals made rough sketches on cave walls–geometric shapes and stencils of hands. The study was published in the leading journal Science (read the article here). You can read the short version in today’s Wall Street Journal. The problem is with the overblown claims that are made from the findings.

Here’s what happened, and it really is pretty cool. Scientists demonstrated that Neandertals drew on cave walls. The study dated wall sketches of “dots, lines, disks, and hand stencils.” Before this time, we thought that all of those cave sketches were made by our homo sapiens ancestors. In previous studies, the available dating techniques showed that the drawings were made after humans took over Europe from Neandertals. Researchers thought that only homo sapiens could generate a wall sketch. (Previous studies had found some evidence that Neandertals generated visual images, but they’re inconclusive.) The researchers studied ancient cave drawings at three locations in Spain. They were able to date when the sketches were made, using a sensitive dating technique. The wall markings were made 64,000 years ago, long before homo sapiens (that’s us) was anywhere near Spain.

I love the study. But: This isn’t “creative.” It’s not even “art.”

It’s a cool study. You don’t need to make excessive claims that it demonstrates creativity. (Although news reports love it, and the original paper has gotten a lot of media coverage.) The study shows that Neandertals had a limited kind of representational ability. I think most people would agree that making marks on a wall of dots and lines isn’t creative; neither is drawing a line around your hand. Are researchers surprised that Neandertals possess the ability to do this? Not really. There was some evidence for it, but this new evidence is somewhat more convincing.

There’s another limitation of the study: The sketches that the researchers were able to date weren’t weren’t figural. Their study was limited to “dots, lines, disks, and hand stencils.” Most language researchers wouldn’t consider that to be “symbolic” because a symbol is usually thought to have an arbitrary relation to what it references. The word “dog” doesn’t look anything like a dog, and the word for “dog” is very different in other languages. So the word “dog” has an arbitrary relationship to the animal it refers to. With these stencils, a Neandertal placed a hand onto the cave wall, and drew an outline around the hand. That’s not an arbitrary relationship. Most scholars would call that an iconic sign, and that doesn’t require the same cognitive complexity as an arbitrary symbol. Specifically, it’s not enough to support symbolic communication. A Neandertal could draw an outline around his hand, and still not be capable of human language–because language is based in symbolic ability, defined as an arbitrary relationship.

So in sum, here’s the contribution of the study: First, it makes scientists somewhat more convinced that Neandertals could generate images; second, it increases the likelihood that the other more complex drawings in the cave–such as those of animals–were also drawn there by the Neandertals; but they could just have easily have been added there much, much later by homo sapiens. (However, even those animal drawings can’t be called “symbols” because they, too, do not stand in an arbitrary relationship to their referent.)

This is the way science works: Each study is an incremental contribution to our evolving understanding of the world. With this study, we’re more certain about something we suspected might have been true; and, the findings give us more reason to conduct research on a topic, when before, we weren’t as convinced that line of research would be productive. This is an important contribution, but it’s incremental.

Symbolic ability–defined as an arbitrary relationship between sign and referent–is very advanced, cognitively: The developmental psychologist Jean Piaget wrote an entire book, very theoretical and dense, about how symbolic thinking ability emerges in humans during childhood. Take-home message of the book: Learning how to think in symbols is hard and complicated. Don’t take it for granted. (In English the book is titled Play, dreams, and imitation in childhood but in French, it’s called The development of the symbol.)

The WSJ article, and so many other media reports, makes claims that are far beyond this study’s findings. For example, the story falsely says that the study shows Neandertals have “the cognitive capacity for artistic expression.” And the title itself states:

“Neanderthals were creative, studies show”

The headline caught my eye, so it did its job–to draw in readers. If it’s not outright false, it’s certainly misleading. One of the collaborators on the study is quoted in the WSJ article saying “from the point of view of cognition, Neandertals are indistinguishable from humans.” If the study had found evidence of the sort of symbolic ability that enables language, then we’d be more convinced that Neandertals had cognitive ability that’s closer to that of homo sapiens, but the study doesn’t find that. And, it certainly doesn’t find evidence of creativity.

 

The lead scientist on the study was physicist Dirk Hoffmann, at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in Leipzig, Germany. Over 15 scholars participated in the research.