Neanderthal ‘bling’

Led by João Zilhão of the University of Bristol, UK, a team of British, French, Italian and Spanish archaeologists and anthropologists have at a stroke rid our former companions in Europe, the Neanderthals, of the popular and academic stigma of being uncultured (Zilhao, J. and 16 others 2010. Symbolic use of marine shells and mineral pigments by Iberian Neandertals. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, v. 107 p. 1023-1028). They wore jewellery in the form of necklaces and pendants of bivalve shells, remains of which have turned up in large numbers in caves and rock shelters in the interior of southeast Spain. Some of the perforated shells show clear signs of having been painted, and a few show grooves worn by string. They found even a paint container and painting tools made of small bones from a horse’s foot. The container and tools retain distinct traces of pigment made from the common iron colorants goethite, jarosite and hematite. One large, perforated scallop shell shows that its white interior was painted to match its reddish exterior.

It has often been commented that Neanderthal adornments ( a few possible finds precede this work) and intricate tools were simply copied from those of fully modern humans. The deposits containing this ornamentation are around 50 thousand years old: preceding modern human occupation of the Iberian Peninsula by at least 10 ka. Evidence for artistic work by early H. sapiens comes from South Africa as far back as 165 ka (see Technology, culture and migration in the Middle Palaeolithic of southern Africa in January 2009 EPN, and When and where ‘culture’ began in EPN of November 2007). Iron-based pigments are still widely used for body painting in many societies, but obviously that use will not feature directly in archaeological finds. Association of lumps of potential pigments with hominin tools go back even further in Africa, beyond the presence of fully modern humans, but to ascribe pieces of say hematite to cultural practice needs evidence for scraping or grinding. There seems no reason why Neanderthals and modern humans maintained an ancient cultural tradition.

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