Scientists have long debated whether Neandertals were as sophisticated as the early homo sapiens who lived alongside them. New evidence from a 50-thousand-year-old Neandertal campsite suggests they were our ancestors' mental equals, wearing jewelry and painting with homebrew pigments.
In a study to be published next week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a group of archaeologists explain their findings, and their historical significance.
The researchers found brightly-colored shell ornaments and the remains of several colorful pigments in a cave that would have been a few kilometers from the Mediterranean Sea 50 thousand years ago, in an area that is now southern Spain. At another site nearby, they found more shell ornaments and pigments. What's remarkable is that many of these objects predate the era when Neandertals and early homo sapiens lived together in Europe. That means the Neandertals independently hit upon the idea to create shell jewelry and pigments. Previously, it's been difficult to determine whether Neandertal ornaments were the result of cross-pollination between the immigrant human population and the native Neandertals.
One particularly intriguing discovery was a shell known for its bright red coloration on one side (above left). The shell had a hole in it that showed the kind of wear you'd expect from putting it on a string for a necklace or other ornament. In addition, it had been treated with a bright red pigment on the colorless side of the shell (above right), so that both sides of the shell had matching bright red coloring.
Elsewhere, the archaeologists found horse bones that had traces of pigment on their tips. You can see the bones on the left, above, and closeups of the pigment at right. Possibly they had been used for mixing the pigments, traces of which were determined to have once been red, orange, yellow, and a glittering black from crushed hematite (yes, even Neandertals liked sparkly makeup). It's not known whether these pigments were used as body paint, or just for painting shells, clothing, and other items. However, there is strong evidence - based on ancient Egyptian practice - that both the red and yellow were probably used in body paint. Below you can see another painted shell, and on the right a closeup of the pigment.
Certainly these discoveries put to rest the idea that Neandertals were cognitively inferior to homo sapiens. Anthropologists consider the use of paint and jewelry to be evidence of fairly sophisticated symbolic thought. What's even more mind-blowing about these discoveries is that homo sapiens in Africa were discovering these same tools of symbolism at roughly the same time as Neandertals - on a separate continent.
Say the researchers in their paper:
[Decorative pigementation and jewelry's] emergence in two continents, among two different lineages and, in the timescale of human evolution, at about the same time, is inconsistent with cognitive-genetic explanations and implies that these innovations were fulﬁlling a need-aiding in the personal or social identiﬁcation of people-that did not exist in the preceding two million years of human evolution. Our ﬁndings therefore support models of the emergence of behavioral modernity as caused by technological progress, demographic increase, and socia lcomplexiﬁcation and show that there is no biunivocal correlation between"modern" anatomy and "modern"behavior.
In other words, symbolic behavior is an emergent property of social and technological complexity. It's not just the result of a biological shift.
via Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (paper publishes next week, so check back)
In the meantime, you can read more via BBC News