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Did Neanderthals make art? (sapiens.org)
57 points by fzliu 3 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 59 comments

The title of this article reminded me of a thought provoking book by GK Chesterton, "The Everlasting Man", obviously he write from a religious perspective but one discussion raised a question that I had not considered before. Why do we assume primitive man was any less intelligent or artistic than we are now?

"Human civilization is older than human records. That is the sane way of stating our relations to these remote things. Humanity has left examples of its other arts earlier than the art of writing; or at least of any writing that we can read. [..] In short, the prehistoric period need not mean the primitive period, in the sense of the barbaric or bestial period. It does not mean the time before civilization or the time before arts and crafts. It simply means the time before any connected narratives that we can read. This does indeed make all the practical difference between remembrance and forgetfulness;" [1]


I love the thought of humanity being constant like that. Examples of things like prehistoric people drawing dicks on things, or "<name> was here" written on various ancient walls, all really emphasize that humans have been basically the same for a long time. "It was part of a fertility ritual" is one explanation, or another is that people have just always drawn dicks on things.

On some deep level it is a fertility ritual. Today, I mean.

I had a debate in a computational intelligence course in grad school that veered off from the topic of embodied cognition somehow into the advance of human culture. (During class; no mind-altering substances included.)

The crux of the debate was, on one side, two of us saying there is no such thing as advancement in culture (art, music, taste, etc), only in science (knowledge) and technology (application); while the other side insisted that culture does indeed progress. It was an interesting debate. I still think that no culture is significantly more advanced culturally than any other probably going back many tens of thousands of years (or maybe ever? I don't know). Art or music or cuisine, etc, that invokes the intended emotional, cognitive, etc response is doing what it is supposed to do. Any preference to modern over ancient is purely subjective and nullified by any preference to ancient over modern.

I would therefore agree that modern humans are not more artistic.

However, as someone who studies intelligence, I would say that because of modern nutrition, medicine, evolution, and adaptation, modern humans are probably a tiny bit more intelligent than ancient humans. I would guess that someone alive 50,000 years ago who was transported to today and raised as a modern human would have little trouble, but that the average ancient human would probably be slightly less intelligent than the average modern human.

Hell, if the Flynn effect proves to be real, then the average grandparent may be slightly less intelligent than the average grandchild. Just in a couple generations. Over the course of dozens or hundreds of human generations, the difference would not be zero.

> However, as someone who studies intelligence, I would say that because of modern nutrition, medicine, evolution, and adaptation, modern humans are probably a tiny bit more intelligent than ancient humans. I would guess that someone alive 50,000 years ago who was transported to today and raised as a modern human would have little trouble, but that the average ancient human would probably be slightly less intelligent than the average modern human.

Modern humans allegedly have slightly smaller brains than humans 3000 years ago. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20220503-why-human-brains...

There's also the question of what we are actually measuring when we talk about "intelligence". It seems this is at least somewhat culturally subjective. This means that while you might be technically correct, people 50000 years ago might value aspects of intelligence that is slightly different, and they may excel in those aspects instead.


In general, I don't know whether there can be any meaningful conclusion on whether "culture" advances. To me culture is always a matter of gaining a focus on one aspect and losing focus on another at the same time. I.e. a matter of preference and taste. Is there really something as "better" taste in general? Yes if you impose your subjective views onto to others, and no if you are fundamentally egalitarian or relativist. But then if you measure specifics (eg. how life-like/realistic were the paintings? How harmonious were the music?) you'll get some trends. The problem is that those trends aren't necessarily "improvement" if those aspects are subjectively considered a negative trait.

I'd add one argument about art: living in a "primitive" state full of unknowns promotes imagination a few orders of magnitude.

Another one: I make a parallel with pre-tooled humans that these people long ago were living on a thin line and had to be extremely lean and yet wildly efficient all the time, you don't have much time to craft a spear and it better be lethal when you finally approach a prey. And you do this with your hands. It looks as stupid as senior writing a few lines of code and looking dumb when it fact it's 80% right the first time.

According to the modern meaning of art, as long as the artist intends for it to be art then it is art. Since it is not the work itself but the artist that defines art then anything that was intended at least in part to evoke some emotional response is art. Therefore under this definition it is highly likely that Neanderthals made art. For example making a shelter look nicer than it had to be. Any rituals would also have to be considered art as they are ultimately intended to evoke an emotional response even if this was not a conscious decision.

As far as I know there's no real evidence that an individual neanderthal was any less intelligent than an individual human.

Creative expression is related to intelligence, but if it was linearly correlated then the most intelligent modern humans would be the world's greatest artists with few exceptions, which is not the case. It is a distinct ability, which is why some children are very good artists despite their comparative lower IQ in contrast to adults. Other creatures that approach the intelligence of human children don't exhibit creative expression. And no, training apes and elephants to paint blotches on a canvas really doesn't count since it's not of their own accord. Other animals, and every other ape we are distantly related to are not artistically creative beyond tool making, but tool making is utilitarian and not a pure form of creative expression for its own sake. Thus, it's really not farfetched to assume that other species of Homo aren't as artistic given a lack of art demonstrated to have been produced by them. It may have nothing to do with intelligence at all.

I remember reading that geniuses tend to be more likely to have creative or artistic hobbies. Art is an instance of symbolic abstract reasoning. The level of originating new modes of expressing shape and form, which is what all the earliest humans would have had to do, is the highest mode of intelligence.

You can't use today's standards where it's all streamlined and commodified (though still requiring talent) on that period of time where every little innovation, even simple counting, would have required incredible brilliance and lateral thinking.

Or, maybe IQ is not a good measure of anything besides one specific type of intelligence.

Perhaps a tangent, but I simply don't understand why we can't apply different terms for "other types of intelligence"?

Growing up, it baffled me that being able to chuck a football 50 yards meant there would be a weekly pep rally in your honor, and an annual parade through the town. Whereas for the gifted program kids, the main message we seemed to receive from teachers and administrators was to stay humble, that being intelligent doesn't make you better than anyone else, etc.

Why do we celebrate athleticism, musical talent, and other forms of ability in others, yet also feel so fiercely insecure about other people's IQ test scores that we have to co-opt the term "intelligence" itself? To apply it to socialization skills and other various abilities. Other than perhaps video games being labeled as "e-sports", you see no major push to label the less physically gifted as "mental athletes", or any other co-opt.

Why can't empathy and socialization skill be... empathy and socialization skill? Artistic talent be artistic talent, etc? Why are individuals so willing to self-identify as average or below-average in any of these traits, yet we torture language because it's anathema to admit that we might not each be in the 90th-percentile of something called "intelligence"?

> Why do we celebrate athleticism, musical talent, and other forms of ability in others, yet also feel so fiercely insecure about other people's IQ test scores that we have to co-opt the term "intelligence" itself?

Possibly because we see intelligence as the ultimate limiting factor to any kind of success. It's not entirely untrue, but it doesn't paint the entire picture. My IQ isn't even above 100 and yet I'm making over thrice the average American income as a software engineer, drawing PCBs, making hardware devices, and debating people online every day over things like Typescript; the idea that IQ is everything doesn't ring true to me.

As a counterpoint, something like musical talent can be highly subjective. An artist can make a piece of music that is "perfectly" composed and performed, but the guy who used Garageband with some unique samples can get more plays on Spotify. Athleticism is no exception either, as anyone who has watched the Olympics has seen how ridiculously subjective the judges are (especially in gymnastics and skating). Measures of either sports or musical ability predict very little outside of their respective domains, whereas IQ is correlated with many things.

> Why do we celebrate athleticism, musical talent, and other forms of ability in others, yet also feel so fiercely insecure about other people's IQ test scores that we have to co-opt the term "intelligence" itself? To apply it to socialization skills and other various abilities. Other than perhaps video games being labeled as "e-sports", you see no major push to label the less physically gifted as "mental athletes", or any other co-opt.

I would think there's a social, visual, and auditory aspect with athleticism and musical talent that other types or intelligence don't have. Music and rhythm start in the womb so that's naturally something we all gravitate to. Sports are easily measurable and almost anyone can relate to not being able to shoot three-pointers one after another.

Things happening solely in the mind are much harder to celebrate.

Oxford: "the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills"

The ability to "pick things up" can manifest in a multitude of ways, from pattern recognition to spatial reasoning to mathematical aptitude to advanced language expression.

I personally believe that even advancement in art and athletics imply intelligence, but I accept these are a bit more controversial.

I don't agree that there's more than one kind of intelligence. People have various abilities, skills, and gifts, but being good at something isn't a type of intelligence. I know that psychological professionals may disagree, but I think that applying intelligence to anything but "general intelligence" is something we've invented to keep people from feeling bad about themselves.

So in a way, I agree with what you're saying, but I'm not sure if it's in the way that you were thinking.

My position on intelligence is that it's largely overrated. It's good for predicting outcomes, and it's effective for determining whether someone is mentally challenged, but greater intelligence has drawbacks for the individual. What makes many people successful, regardless, of IQ, is having a framework by which they make smart decisions.

Contrast the 90 IQ person who makes smart decisions to avoid pitfalls and be likable to others with the 145 IQ gifted person who can't get anyone to like them, can't relate to others, and struggles to function in a general domain. If you want others to believe in you and to like you, it mostly comes down to making decisions that create that perception. The simplest one is merely showing up to your job on time. People who show up on time are far more likely to keep their jobs. Knowing history and having good conversational skills creates likability and intellectual respect, yet those areas don't require an above average IQ at all. Intelligent people might know a lot about history, but can have poor conversational skills and not know when to shut up about the Roman Empire. Intelligence is positively correlated with various mental illnesses which can subject them to addiction and poor decision making, whereas the 90 IQ person who doesn't impulse buy and pays off their debts is capable of being in a better state in life than the 145 IQ person who lives in a shoebox apartment because they can't hold down a tedious job that pays, they have no friends or family of their own, and they keep spending their earnings on weed and other nonsense.

This doesn't mean that intelligence is worthless, but properly trained "dumb" people can beat many "gifted" people without even given them smart drugs.

It is limiting the way researchers presume the burden of proof has to go the other way. The extreme case of this is with homo erectus being found on Crete, but we are not allowed to suggest that they knew how to build a raft. No, we have to assume that they swam to Crete, this is much more logical than assuming they knew how to build a raft.

I DDG'd your phrase


The first hit is <https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/100217-cr...> which says

"Crete has been surrounded by vast stretches of sea for some five million years. The discovery of the hand ax suggests that people besides technologically modern humans—possibly Homo heidelbergensis—island-hopped across the Mediterranean tens of thousands of millennia earlier than expected."

I'm getting really worn out by some commenters here. Assertions are made, not backed up, and often plain wrong. It's not what HN is supposed to be about.

For what it's worth I'm not sure that ocean travel is actually that common across human cultures. For instance, Madagascar was first inhabited by people who sailed from Indonesia ~1200-1500 yrs ago.

That there are none left besides the limited interbreeding mark in our genetics could be seen as evidence.

That's evidence but weak evidence and I think group size is a more likely culprit (we really ought to be homo gregalis rather than homo sapiens). That means a conflict between a group of sapiens and neanderthalensis is more likely to go the sapiens's way. But also the secret of our success is that we're so good at cultural transmission and evolution. And when the children of a tribe can learn from the best of 20 instead of the best of 6 hunters you get both a higher level of skill and more rapid cultural innovation around techniques.

Very limited evidence, if at all. It's not true that more intelligent animals cannot be outcompeted by less intelligent ones.

How so? That they weren't intelligent enough to keep their genes pure? Couldn't they have been dominant but also a minority so they were willingly diluted away?

I wonder if the Neanderthal genes we have are more from men or women? Perhaps that would show which direction any conquest and raping happened in.

Neanderthal extinction isn't evidence they were dumber than us any more than the Native American genocide is evidence Native Americans are dumber than Europeans.

Stuff you should know has a nice little podcast episode about this. It's probably not as scientific as this, but they delve into the unwarranted belittling of neanderthals that most people have.

I believe they discussed some cave art that was made by neanderthals in spain way before sapiens arrived in the area proving that it was their art instead of a just a mimic which seems to align with what this article was discussing.


There have been several cases where we said "only (modern) humans do ____", and it turns out to be false, e.g., "make tools".

So if I have to guess... my guess would be, sure they did. They're just a variant of human.

>They're just a variant of human.

I would go as far as to say that anyone who is a member of genus Homo is a human.

There’s a specific technical way to express this but “use complex language about the future of a subject not currently present”

i.e. nothing but a modern human has the language and/or worldview to say “Sally wants hamburgers for lunch tomorrow by the river”

Tangentially, this reminds me of my favorite—if flawed—definition of art (which I can't find a source for at the moment):

    Art is anything a human does that is not necessary for survival.

This is close to Scott McCloud's definition in his book Understanding Comics.

Thanks for the pointer! His definition is very similar and may well be the original source.

a well-crafted spear is not art? that seems almost backwards- art is anything that takes skill to create

the associate of art with uselessness and dissociated aesthetics is more a product of an age of decadence than anything central to appreciation of artforms

A well crafted spear is indeed art - since it doesn't absolutely need to be well crafted, it is that aspect of the spear-as-tool, specifically, that is considered art, and elevates it to that realm. This is why OP said the argument is flawed, because it is. It becomes highly subjective quite fast. But thats the reasoning.

a better-crafted spear will provide more survival benefit, whether by being stronger, sharper, or more reliable when thrown

Neanderthals probably did have some form of language since appear to also have had a gene that is crucial to language in humans. And they buried their dead. So why would we presume they didn't make some sort of marks intentionally, to convey meaning or just to decorate their favorite rock?

To me the more interesting question is: did Neanderthals value art?

Could argue all day about what is and isn't art and if they created artifacts that fit the definition, but what I'd really like to know is "did they appreciate things purely for aesthetics and cultural relevance, and not utility?"

There was an episode of In Our Time about cave art that features a discussion about the art not being solely for utility. Unfortunately I cannot find a transcript and I can't remember when the discussion came up. Still, if you are interested you might want to listen or look at some of the further reading links. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000mqn7

> "did they appreciate things purely for aesthetics and cultural relevance, and not utility?"

Many animals do, even sharing their sense of aesthetics with human taste. Just look at how flowers evolved to some form even we find pleasing without any skin in the game, or how animals that live in total dark (deep sea, for example) are atrociously ugly.

Why do you say they evolved with our taste? Isn't it just as likely we have tastes that suit what happened to evolve naturally?

I didn't say that at all. I said they evolved to their current form, which we happen to enjoy.

I think "create art" and "value art" are essentially equivalent in the context of the question we are pondering. You cannot argue they made art if there was none to appreciate it as art; art doesn't exist without an observer.

"Neanderthals are depicted as hunched-over creatures who don’t seem to have the imagination to do anything besides stare uncomprehendingly at a rock"

I'm pretty sure the illustration the author is talking about depicts a neanderthal using one rock to chip another rock into a sharp implement – not puzzling over it.

I wonder if future genera of Homo will depict us staring uncomprehendingly at a screen.

Our bias really comes out when we write doesn't it?

"I'm super smart and have good posture - hey look at this hunched over Neanderthal! And they're staring at a rock! Idiot"

Bias being those with bad posture and an affinity for staring has no imagination

How I wish I could go back in time 50-100k years to visit some tribe or group of Homo somethings to see with my own eyes how similar we are outside of cultural heritage, to see how closer they are to modern humans with a language barrier as opposed to interacting with non-humanoid primates.

I think the conclusion is arguable but far from certain. There are a number of behaviors that are universally present across all cultures: art, language, fire.

None of these behaviors are present in our closest extant relatives (chimps/bonobos). Therefore they appeared, perhaps together, perhaps separately somewhere along the way. Given that, we’re then just arguing about when these traits emerged.

I do not think it is prejudicial to consider that given the timing of the appearance of art-like artifacts, it could easily be the case that art was (mostly?) limited to Homo Sapiens and their descendants.

Were they painters? asks this article - then shows a painting. I believe the answer not being in the affirmative here really has to do some serious legwork. Don't trust it. Crows might make art, among other animals. Don't disparage our hominid cousins.

What fascinates me is that Neanderthals - and others - most likely shared ideas with us (art or burial ceremony) and maybe our specie wouldn't have come up with some of these ideas.

What's really hard to judge is differences in technology.

We might look at some bit of carving or architecture and conclude that its purpose was merely religious. But maybe it served a practical purpose that's just really alien to us.

Time is money after all. Even for neanderthals.

Give it a few thousand years. They dig up one of our particle accelerator facilities. Conclude that it was a temple where they worshipped giant circles.

Do some human artists make art?

"Just sayin'"...the question will evaluate to being contentious in all contexts, i suspect.


Serious question, why do we can about human art when we've got things like stable diffusion now? retro value?

Stable Diffusion literally just copy-pastes existing art, madlibs-style.

If anything, it greatly increases the value of human art. (Because it now has more leverage and reach.)

Some people say it's because artists use it as a medium for communication. Personally, I don't care about that, I just want the beautiful images.

Even sticking to that particularly narrow definition, if you give a commission to two artists, one using only stable diffusion and the other more traditional methods, are you confident that you will always prefer the work done with stable diffusion? Even from a purely "this is a beautiful image" perspective?

I think though there's more than just the beauty inherent to an image, a lot of times people buy the artist themself, since their life context and your relationship with them can give you a potentially more meaningful way of engaging with and "reading" the art.

If you pick up watercolors and try to paint an illustration, then pick up oils and try doing the same, then pick chalk, pencils, etc, and try doing the same, do you feel any one of those art tools/supplies make the others redundant or "retro"?

Do you feel art is a technical problem that must be somehow "solved", and once "solved" we can move on to more worthy endeavors?

Because stable diffusion is trained on human art?

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