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Can Neanderthals Create Art?

I create art, therefore I am.

Are humans the only species who have the capacity to create art? The purposeful creation of art through paintings or designs on cave walls is known to involve advanced cognitive thought unique to humans, and is often called the “Mind’s Big Bang, ” the first milestone in the history of human evolution. Even before language was constructed, these paintings depicted symbolic images created to communicate both direct and abstract thoughts. They transferred mental states into physical states - portraying significant forms of images and figures. This unique ability to imagine and think symbolically sets the foundational tools for modern cognition, that is, the creative use of language.

Glimmerings of the human mind first appeared in the caverns of Pettakere, Indonesia at least 35,000 years ago. Figurative paintings first appeared 30,000 years ago in the Chauvet caves of France. Simple paintings of hand stencils and elaborate figurative images of bulls, mammoths, deer, and lions were evidence of sophisticated thought beyond the simplistic biological realm of reproduction and death. The invisible hand of higher order consciousness operates in the creation of such art, which requires mental time travel, abstract thought, visual memory development that is unbounded by the constraints of mere survival. Recently, there has been research that proclaims to have found the first instances of Neanderthal art in the Spanish caves of Gibraltar. Although Neanderthals had the highest brain size to body size ratio after humans, and were capable of making tools, fire and hunting, it had been well accepted before this study that caves before homo sapiens were devoid of art. The study blurs the very difference between homo sapiens and Neanderthals and observes that Neanderthals were capable of intellect and thought too. Can Neanderthal cave art be really called “art”? Let's explore a series of questions.

Can Animals Create Art?

Tolstoy says that art serves as a “means of union” among people just as speech is a means to communicate in order to transmit thoughts and experiences to fellow beings. The reception of feelings through someone else’s expression and to feel that emotion is the activity of art. He believes that a direct transmission of feeling cannot be called art, for example, if a person causes another person to yawn when he/she cannot help yawning or causing another person to cry when he/she is obliged to do so. By his definition, the communication between certain birds cannot be called “art” because they are biologically wired to do so for reasons like mating, pair bonding, rearing young ones and predation. Animals who cannot help such a reaction cannot be called as responding to art. Even the lyrebird that creates music by sampling sounds from other bird species and arranges it together to make its own song does so to directly manifest the response of attraction for the purpose of mating. Interpretation of the attraction of the female lyrebird to male lyrebird as “appreciation of art” by human observers is nothing but a biological mating ritual between the birds.

Is Koko the Gorilla an Artist? Tolstoy also mentions the “sincerity” of an artist as a major component of art. An inner burning desire to create art from experience and to “infect” others with his/her artistic expression is the purpose of the artist. Without such a sincerity, any accident that results in the creation of objects could be called art. Can we say that Koko the gorilla creates art when he pounds the canvas without a clear intent with his colors?

‘Bird’, a painting by Koko the gorilla

Autumn Rhythm by Jackson Pollock

Why is one of the two paintings above housed in Metropolitan Museum of Art (MoMa) at a net worth of $20,000 and the other one is not even considered to be a work of art?

Are Bowerbirds actually Ignored Architects & Interior Designers?

Of aesthetic judgments, Kant said that objects of art are “purposive without purpose”. By this definition, he proposes that an object becomes a work of art if it holds an intrinsic value without having been designed and planned for a particular practical purpose. The work of art is one because it holds no utilitarian value. Male bowerbirds create highly embellished nests using beads, flowers, shells and perspective to woo female bowerbirds.

Nests decorated with berries and flowers created by male bowerbirds during mating season

Romantic as the gesture is, can the bowerbirds architects or artists? Consider that they are responding to innate biological needs of reproduction. Similarly, is the peacock creating art when he dances to seduce a peahen?

History's First Hashtag

Recent research claims to have found Neanderthal art in Spanish caves of Gibraltar - painted more than 40,000 years ago before the arrival of homo sapiens - challenging accepted theories of the lack of modern cognition amongst Neanderthals due to their inability to generate cave art. Cross-hatching design pattern carved in the bedrock of Gorham’s cave seeks to demonstrate the Neanderthals’ capacity for abstract thought and expression. What is touted to be the earliest geometric design looks curiously like the modern day ‘hashtag’ (#).

(A) Engraved design from Gorham’s cave. (B) Engraved lines identifying breaks.

Can these roughly marked etchings be called art?

Unless a Neanderthal can rise from his/ her grave to explain the meaning of his/her four criss crossings, those marks have no intentionality and are thus, non-art for us dimwits in this time. These questions have inconclusive answers and are subject to major speculation. And this is why pondering about all these mysteries is so much fun.


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