and the Emergence of Humanity in Southern Europe
June of 2013 I accompanied a group of Hendrix students to experience the remarkable
record of early human cultural evolution found in France, Spain and Italy. The
Franco-Cantabrian region of France and Spain holds the single greatest
concentration of Paleolithic art found anywhere on Earth. This record of cave
paintings, sculpture and portable art documents one of the most profound
transitions in human history as modern humans emerged from millennia of
relatively utilitarian existence to produce spectacular artistic depictions of
their world. This record is of great value to anthropologists interested in
understanding both the environment of our early ancestors and their cognitive
development as they portrayed the world they perceived.
contrast with the vivid art of Upper Paleolithic Franco-Cantabria is the
relatively mundane and unexpressive archaeological record of the preceding
Middle Paleolithic when Europe was inhabited by Neandertals. At least this has
been the prevailing view of archaeologists for more than a century. One of the
most fascinating aspects of recent research in the area is the revelation that
Neandertals may not have been as culturally impoverished as has been imagined.
For example, state of the art dating techniques applied to cave art in Spain
last year revealed that some paintings were at least 40,800 year old, and
prompted suggestions that these paintings may have been produced by Neandertals
rather than modern humans.
discoveries are only the tip of a growing awareness among archaeologists that
much of our understanding of the relationship between modern humans and
Neandertals has been shaped by earlier generations of unchallenged assumption
and national prejudice. To some curiosity the first Neandertal remains were
discovered by German workers in 1856. Just a few years later the French were
elated to discover the more gracile Cro-Magnon remains in France and declare the
first truly modern humans their own. From early on prominent scholars
attributed great differences to the two groups and much was inferred about
cognitive differences that may have led our ancestors to replace Neandertals.
the same time fantastic paintings of cave walls were ‘discovered’ in France.
Their discovery had as much to do with recognition as visibility, as many had
been long known but misunderstood. It was only with the growing awareness of
evolutionary biology and its implications for humans that much of the archaeological
and paleontological record was recognized for what it was. When equally
fantastic paintings were discovered at Altamira in Spain diplomatic relations
were again tested by French assertions that the Spanish works were too refined
to be authentic.
art found at sites like Lascaux and Altamira has provided generations of
anthropologists with the most compelling evidence for the rise of language and
abstract thought in what is sometimes referred to as the creative revolution.
They have also inspired modern observers as a source of pride symbolic of the
birth of art and modern man. After visiting Lascaux, legend has it that Pablo
Picasso claimed “we have learned nothing”, in acknowledgement of the artistic
mastery visible in paintings 18,000 years old.
have long recognized that the preponderance of artistic work from this age was
associated with modern humans, and its relative infrequence from Neandertal
contexts led them to conclude that modern humans’ ability to symbolically express
themselves was a critical adaptive advantage. Thus the emergence of artistic
creativity became a seminal moment in human evolution and has attracted the
attention of scholars, artists, nationalists and tourists for more than a
hundred and fifty years.
archaeological record of Italy has historically entered less prominently into
such debates, but more intensive study there is now contributing to the growing
evidence that Neandertals exhibited a previously underappreciated cultural
sophistication. Dr. Julien Riel-Salvatore of the University of Colorado, Denver
is playing an active part in the Italian research with excavations at the Paleolithic
sites of the Caverna delle Arene Candide and Balzi Rossi, in the region of
Liguria in northern Italy. He visited Hendrix in early February to speak as
part of our Human Evolution Crossing and hosted our group this summer in visiting
these important excavations.
our visit to Italy we departed to the northwest where we stopped at the Grotte
de Chauvet Museum in Vallon Pont-D’Arc, then continued on to the French
Pyrenees where we visited caves of Niaux and Isturitz. From there we moved west
to spend a week in Santander, Spain where we visited numerous caves in the
Cantabria and Asturias areas, including El Castillo, Tito Bustillo and the
reproduction of Altamira Cave. We then turned back east to the Dordogne region
of France, staying in Les Eyzies where we visit the numerous rock shelters and
cave sites in the vicinity, including Font de Gaume, Roufignac and the
reproduction at Lascaux II. In all we visited 15 caves sites with Paleolithic
paintings and several other museums and reproductions, before ending our trip