Earliest cave art belonged to Neanderthals, not humans: Study

This color enhanced image provided by Hipolito Collado Giraldo in February 2018 shows three hand stencils in the Maltravieso Cave in Cáceres, Spain. (AP)
Updated 24 February 2018
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Earliest cave art belonged to Neanderthals, not humans: Study

MIAMI: The world’s oldest known cave art was crafted by Neanderthals more than 20,000 years before modern humans arrived in Europe, showing that our extinct cousins were capable of symbolic thinking just like us, international researchers said Thursday.
The report in the journal Science is based on new technology that reveals the most accurate age yet of ancient cave paintings at three different archaeological sites in Spain.
“This is an incredibly exciting discovery which suggests Neanderthals were much more sophisticated than is popularly believed,” said co-lead author Chris Standish, an archaeologist at the University of Southampton.
“Our results show that the paintings we dated are, by far, the oldest known cave art in the world.”
Since they were created some 64,000 years ago — at least 20,000 years before modern humans arrived in Europe from Africa — “they must have been painted by Neanderthals,” he added.
Using mainly red pigments and sometimes black, groups of animals, hand stencils, engravings, dots, discs and geometric designs are depicted in the cave paintings at La Pasiega in the northeast, Maltravieso in the west and Ardales in the south of Spain.
These symbolic renderings point to an intelligence that was previously thought to be uniquely the realm of modern humans.
“The emergence of symbolic material culture represents a fundamental threshold in the evolution of humankind,” said co-lead author Dirk Hoffmann of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.
“It is one of the main pillars of what makes us human.”
Plenty of evidence already exists to debunk the myth that Neanderthals were knuckle-dragging brutes, and instead were capable of decorative impulses and rituals, like burying their dead.
But cave paintings were one of the last bastions that appeared to differentiate anatomically modern humans from Neanderthals, who died out some 35,000 years ago.
“Recent years have seen studies that show Neanderthals made extensive use of ornamental objects, potentially built structures, and on the whole, appear far more capable of symbolic cognitive processes than has historically been regarded,” Adam Van Arsdale, associate professor of anthropology at Wellesley College, told AFP.
“These results suggest that cave painting, also, fails to distinguish Neanderthals and modern humans,” said Van Arsdale, who was not involved in the study.
He said the findings reflect “some impressive technical developments in dating techniques in cave contexts, issues that have always posed a challenge for our understanding the timing of key events in human evolution.”
He added: “As a new and technically challenging method, it will be good to see these results replicated by others.”
Until now, figuring out the age of cave drawings without destroying them has been difficult.
The new approach is based on obtaining a minimum age for cave art “using uranium-thorium (U-Th) dating of carbonate crusts overlying the pigments,” explained Hoffman.
The technique of U-Th dating is based on the radioactive decay of uranium isotopes into thorium.
It can determine the age of calcium carbonate formations going back as far as 500,000 years, much further than the widely used radiocarbon method, said the report.
More than 60 tiny samples, less than 10mm each, were analyzed from the three caves.
A second study, also published this week by Hoffmann and colleagues, determined the age of an archaeological deposit located at the Cueva de los Aviones, a sea cave in southeast Spain.
“This cave contained perforated sea shells, red and yellow colorants and shell containers including complex mixes of pigments,” said the report.
U-Th dating found the flowstone covering the deposit to about 115,000 years, older than similar finds in south and north Africa associated with Homo sapiens.
The dating shows they came from a time when Neanderthals lived in western Europe.
“According to our new data Neanderthals and modern humans shared symbolic thinking and must have been cognitively indistinguishable,” said Joao Zilhao, a researcher from the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies in Barcelona who was involved in both studies.
Future studies could reveal many more caves where art was likely done by Neanderthals, said study co-author Paul Pettitt of Durham University.
“We have examples in three caves 700km apart, and evidence that it was a long-lived tradition. It is quite possible that similar cave art in other caves in Western Europe is of Neanderthal origin as well,” he said.
“Neanderthals created meaningful symbols in meaningful places. The art is not a one-off accident.”


‘Part of the family’: Worried Saudi falcon owners find relief at special Abu Dhabi bird hospital

Prized female Saker falcons in flight. (Getty Images)
Updated 22 September 2018
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‘Part of the family’: Worried Saudi falcon owners find relief at special Abu Dhabi bird hospital

  • The price of a falcon depends on its breed and gender, as females are more prized because they are bigger and better for hunting
  • There are falcons that are considered to be very special and beautiful

DUBAI: As the national bird of Saudi Arabia, the falcon is both a symbolic marker of the country’s culture and tradition and a treasured pet to many of its residents — and it is the job of one Abu Dhabi avian expert to tender to hundreds of injured birds of prey flown in from the Kingdom each year.
On any given week, about 10 injured birds are transported from Saudi Arabia — many by private plane — to be treated by the expert hands of Dr. Margit Muller, executive director of Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, the world’s first hospital dedicated to the falcon.
An expert in the specialized field of avian medicine, Dr. Muller’s extensive knowledge means she is in constant demand to treat injured falcons from all over the world. She treats about 10,000 birds of prey annually, of which at least 500 — predominately the Saker falcon, the largest species of falcon — are from Saudi Arabia.
“Due to our international reputation as the largest falcon hospital in the world, our very advanced treatment methods and the latest technical equipment, every year we receive more and more falcons from Saudi Arabia for examination and treatment,” said the German-born avian expert.
“Most of the falcons that we received from Saudi Arabia are Saker falcons as they are the favorite hunting falcons in Saudi Arabia. Most travel by car or private plane. For a sick falcon, it is faster to come to us by plane than by car, which reduces delays until the treatment.”
Many Saudi Arabian owners are often distressed as they consider the falcon an integral “part of the family,” explained Dr. Muller.
“The vast majority of falcon owners consider and treat their birds like their own sons and daughters,” she said. “Their falcons occupy a special place in their homes — and even in their cars.”
“Therefore, the falcon owners are very much emotionally attached to their birds, as they really love them very much. Here at Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital we often experience very distressed owners whose falcon has come in with an accident. They wait in our reception area until the emergency surgery is finished, even during night hours, just to see their falcon waking up again.
Only then they are relieved enough to go home again. ”Moreover, falconers bring their birds to Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital even when they notice the slightest problem — like sneezing or vomiting — because they are extremely concerned and worried about their beloved falcons.”
They are also a valuable asset. Dr. Muller estimates that the average value of a falcon can range anywhere from SR20,000 ($5,300) to SR50,000.
“The price of a falcon depends on its breed and gender, as females are more prized because they are bigger and better for hunting, as well as being more beautiful,” she explained. “Moreover, in captive-bred falcons, the breeder’s reputation also plays a role in the price of the falcon.
“However, there are falcons that are considered to be very special and beautiful. They may cost more than SR100,000.”
Dr. Muller, who fell in love with falcons when she was training to be a vet and took a two-month internship in Dubai before obtaining a doctorate in veterinary medicine, said there is now about a 20 per cent increase year-on-year in the number of birds passing through Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital.
Every day she will treat dozens of feathered patients with differing injuries or illness.
“In Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, we have treated many different kinds of injures,” she said. “Some of the cases that are being treated are falcons that have encountered major accidents, such as being hit by a car, have leg fractures, or are suffering from a bacterial and viral infection or a bleeding nose. They may be showing symptoms of being very weak, tired and emaciated, or are suffering from Aspergillosis (a fungal disease that affects the lung and leads to major breathing difficulties and loss of flight performance, and is potentially fatal).”
Dr. Muller said that her first step when interacting with a new patient is to examine the falcon to establish the correct diagnosis and treatment plan.
“Care and medical rehabilitation for falcons will depend on the bird’s medical condition, and ranges from normal hospitalization in our hospital wards, up to stays in our ICU for critically ill falcons,” she explained.
“They require 24-hour special care as well as specifically designed treatment protocols and special feeding programs.”
“In the case of bacterial upper respiratory tract infections, the falcon should be under medical care for one week. However, an injured falcon requiring surgical repair for a broken leg or wing should be under medical care for a month.”
Falcons who moult — the cyclic replacement of feathers by shedding old ones, while producing new ones in their place — usually stay for a minimum of six months.
“Here at Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, we have a very scientific moulting facility and it is really a big hit for falcons during moulting season,” she said. “Therefore, every year we receive more and more falcons from Saudi Arabia as their owners would like their falcons to stay in a professional and caring place during the moulting time.”
Dr. Muller, who concentrated her thesis on foot disease in falcons and also has a diploma in veterinary homeopathy, became director of the ADFH in 2001.
“I always found falcons highly interesting and fascinating,” she said, with a smile. “When I came into contact with falcons during my veterinary medicine studies, I was so immediately attracted to them. The look in falcons’ eyes is like magic.”
After deciding to be a falcon specialist, Dr. Muller went on to share her experience with other veterinarians and falcon rehabilitation experts throughout the world by publishing her book “Practical Handbook of Falcon Husbandry and Medicine.”
Every day is a new challenge, she explains, but her work — which has earned international recognition — is something she says she is thankful for every day.
“There are always special cases of falcons, especially those which are very hard to treat, such as major accidents and fractures. The harder the case and the more the falcons suffer from an injury or disease, the more likely I get attached to them.
“It is beyond words to describe how much the falcons fight for their survival and how much they communicate their need of help through their eyes.
“The moment I look into their big black eyes, I am immediately attached to them and try my very best to help them as much as I can to save their life.
“It is what I feel I am here for.”