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Fossil findings blur picture of art's birth

July 7, 2004 By Michael Hopkin This article courtesy of Nature News.

Who created the earliest artwork?

For years archaeologists have clung to the idea that only truly modern humans were artists, and that our Neanderthal cousins spent their entire evolutionary lifetime as boorish philistines. But fresh analysis of a prized set of human bones has dealt a body blow to this cherished theory.

The first sparks of artistic creativity are seen in carved figurines found at various sites throughout Europe. The oldest examples are between 30,000 and 40,000 years old, which means they were created about the time that modern humans are thought to have blazed a trail across the continent, displacing Neanderthals as they went.

Many experts argue that this cannot be simple coincidence. Art arrived in Europe with modern humans, they say. As proof, they point to the Vogelherd caves near Ulm, Germany, where a dozen figurines of this vintage, as well as stone tools, were unearthed alongside Homo sapiens remains in 1931.

However, no one had proved that the Vogelherd bones and artwork were the same age, says Nicholas Conard of the University of Tübingen, Germany, who led the new study. "Speculation is cheap," he says. "It sounds plausible, but you need evidence."

Dating game

Conard's team have now dated the artefacts, by looking at the rates of decay of radioactive carbon atoms in samples taken from the specimens. As he and his colleagues report in this week's Nature1, the bones are only about 5,000 years old, which is much younger than the stone tools and artworks that litter their resting place.

The Vogelherd humans must have been deliberately buried, much as we inter our dead today, Conard's team concludes. And this means that researchers have lost a valuable lead in their hunt for the artists who created the figurines.

Everyone assumes that modern man made the first art. But no one knows the true story.
Nicholas Conard
University of Tübingen
"It is disappointing," says Clive Gamble, an archaeologist at the University of Southampton, UK. The discovery leaves experts without a concrete link between art's origins and modern man.

Does this mean, then, that Neanderthals could have been artists too? After all, they lived in Europe alongside modern humans at the time of art's first flowering. Perhaps, says Gamble, although it seems unlikely given that they are thought to have arrived in Europe around 200,000 years ago, long before the earliest art.

Still, Gamble admits that Vogelherd has taught archaeologists not to assume the figurines were made by modern man just because they are the right age. "It's like saying that every baguette must have been made by a Frenchman," he says.

Until someone finds bones and art of the same age buried together, the true picture will stay hidden, agrees Conard. "Everyone assumes that modern man made the art, and the Vogelherd humans were supposed to prove that," he says. "But now no one knows the real story."


  1. Conard N. J. , Grootes P. M. & Smith, F. H. et al. Nature, 430, 198 - 201, (2004).


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