Jewelry: so easy a cave man can do it

New finds suggest that Neanderthals made symbolic body decorations, just as their modern-human counterparts did.

Courtesy of João Zilhão
A decorative shell ornament attributed to Neanderthals. It's one of several examples of Neanderthal ornamentation researchers have found in southeastern Spain. The shell piece on the left was painted with an orange mix of goethite and hematite, either to restore the shell segment to its original appearance or to try to match it to the natural color found on the inside of the shell.

Move over Tiffanys. It seems even a Neanderthal can make jewelry. The right shells, a little pigment, and, voilà, shell beads.

A team led by University of Bristol archaeologist João Zilhão has uncovered what it interprets as evidence that Neanderthals made rudimentary jewelery from sea shells and pigments – up to now a level of symbolic art associated with early modern humans. Many have held that Neanderthals were too mentally primitive to develop symbolic art before they vanished from the scene.

The team reports that it found several examples, all of which date to about 50,000 ago. The dating is important, the researchers say. Other workers have found what they claimed was evidence of Neanderthal adornment. But those finds were roughly 40,000 years old – dating to a period where Neanderthals and modern humans would have shared the European continent. This has led other researchers to argue that the purported Neanderthal artifacts represented mindless imitation or were from later periods, but they somehow got mixed into the wrong soil layers of the archaeological digs where they were uncovered. These latest artifacts, however, date to a time before modern humans arrived, the team reports.

They team says it found several similarities between the sites where symbolic art – again, body adornments – as appeared among early-modern humans and Neanderthals. In both cases, the sites were near ancient shorelines, where shells would have been abundant. And the sites are at relatively high elevations compared with the shorelines of the day. So whatever poked holes in the shells to be worn, it is highly unlikely that the holes came from wind and wave processes or from the actions of animals.

At one of the two sites the team worked, the artifacts are associated with a time when Neanderthals had all but vanished. So those don't dodge the overlap argument critics ave leveled at other finds. The second batch of artifacts, however, came from deposits dated to 50,000 years ago. "The association of this material with the Neanderthals is, literally, rock solid," the team writes in presenting its results in the upcoming issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

In trying to piece together the story of humans' intellectual evolution, the team concludes, their finds add weight to the argument that modern anatomy and modern behavior do not necessarily go hand in hand. The emergence of modern behavior s more likely caused by a combination of technological development, population increases, and increasing social complexity.

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