I always liked to think about how it was in the past. How were the people before, how was the nature before. Since my childhood past ages fascinated me. Beginning at the castle Kámen (The Rock - above the village of the same name in Southern Bohemia) where we went with my mother every summer at least once and then I spend days drawing knights and medieval things. But also fossils I have been collecting with my father around Prague, I could not stop thinking about how it is possible that actually where are we standing there was a sea and how these animals looked like when alive and moving. Such exiting feeling digging to find something from the past, fossil, sub-fossil, hammer-stone, microlith, arrowhead or coin. But it was really strange to be at the site of "pinturas rupestres" in eastern Spain where I have seen the cave art for my first time. Somebody very long time ago was there and thought about world, he draw these things and recorded his own unique personality here by his artwork. So now it is really fantastic to read news about 65,000 years old paintings in three caves of Iberian penninsula recently published in Science. The results of well thought out analyses are remarkable not only by the antiquity of the paintings, but mostly by the fact that other species of human, the Neanderthal (Homo neanderthalensis, King 1884) , was at that time the only lineage of genus Homo present at the area in those times.
But is this discovery really something unexpacted? Well, yes and no. Yes because even though we (I mean general 'we' as mankind or science) knew that Neanderthals were sharing culture with Homo sapiens (e.g. Hublin et al. 1996, Nature 381), the art ascribed to their production was rather bumbling (see the Science article for references). Moreover dating of some of those findings was ambiguous. Dating is actually the most essential "trick" of the new study as authors used underlying and overlying minerals, and new method of time estimate to give proof of the period when paintings were drawn. By these methods they gathered enough support to move time frame of origin of parietal art by more than 25,000 years back into history compared to oldest know paintings (ca. 45,000 years BP). Yet some would-be realistic scientists are calling for cool reason until we will have more results by this method (see some more e.g. here).
And this brings us to No to the question above. The discovery is not unexpected or better said surprising. The overall setting of the contemporary science and knowledge has come in recent years to such a state, that the ground for this discovery was prepared and it was just enough to good experimental setting (such that of dating) to come to confirm our obscure anticipation. I do not mean that is is not hilarious and I do not want to offset the value of the research. On the contrary! While cold-headed empiricists' cautiously call for prudence in interpretation of the results the rational ones would might say that such reinterpretation of Neanderthals' behavioral potential was the only thing that could happen. It was inevitable now, after we have found that our own species interbreed with Neanderthals and when lot of other techniques were shared among us and them. So as scientific community came to conclusion that rather that Homo sapiens out-competing Homo neanderthalensis they have interbreed resulting in assimilation of the lineages into one, whole anthropological discourse need to reinterpret its up-to-date believes.
It is only sixteen years when David Lewis-Williams wrote in his book Cave in Mind: Conciousnes and The Origins of Mind (2002, Thames & Hudson, London): "What, then, could borrowed body adornment have signified in Neanderthal society? It is highly unlikely that the Neanderthals recognized the same range of social distinctions as did Homo sapiens people and that the items of decoration would have signified exactly the same thing in both societies; Neanderthal social structure was surely different from Homo sapiens social structure. If body decoration did signify social distinctions among late Neanderthals, they were not the same distinctions as identical items signified in Homo sapiens communities. That being so, it may be misleading to speak of ‘borrowing’ because the word covertly implies similar functions. If the items meant something different to the Neanderthals – they may have signified no, or very different, social distinctions among the Neanderthals – it was only the ‘outward show’ that was taken over. The Neanderthals were, in some sense, pretending to be Homo sapiens." Now we see that maybe Neanderthals did not borrowed art from Homo sapiens, but maybe they were the first ones to do it. Maybe Homo sapiens just pretended for a while to not be Neanderthals.