The jewelry in Spain speaks mainly to the brains (of Neanderthals). So says a team of archaeologists this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers led by João Zilhão have turned up artifacts they believe to be jewelry dating back 50,000 years—a time only Neanderthals and not early humans occupied Europe—suggesting to them that those Neanderthals were capable of the abstract thinking necessary to make symbolic art.
Zilhão’s team found shells and bones that showed evidence of craftsmanship, the scientists say. First, some of the shells were perforated and could have been strung and worn as a necklace. It’s not out of the question that those holes could be natural, but the team says the finds also appear to have been painted. If the researchers’ analysis is correct, the Neanderthals could have mixed up reddish goethite and hematite, yellow siderite and natrojarosite, black charcoal and sparkly pyrite to create a spectrum of paints [MSNBC].
Scientists have found similar artifacts in Europe before. 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 [Christian Science Monitor]. The new finds, however, date to a time 10,000 years before our ancestors migrated to the European continent. So if these fragments truly show signs of handiwork, and if the dating is correct, that points to Neanderthals as the creators.
For Zilhão, this means that Neanderthal mental capacity was closer to that of early humans than we often give them credit for. Objects and compounds like these would have been used to “tell other people who you are,” Dr. Zilhão said. “They are like socially recognizable identity cards.” What’s more, he said, “this is exactly how the same kinds of objects and finds are interpreted in early modern human contexts” [The New York Times].
That wasn’t Zilhão’s only Neanderthal study this week, either. He published a separate study in PNAS addressing the question DISCOVER posed last month: Did we mate with Neanderthals, or did we murder them? Analyzing the teeth of a 30,000-year-old early human child skeleton, he says that it shows similarities to Neanderthals—similarities that again raise the question of whether and how much early humans and Neanderthals interbred in Europe tens of thousands of years ago.
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Image: João Zilhão