Seashells were painted and used as adornment by early humans, and this is commonly taken to indicate an ability to think symbolically. There has been very little evidence that Neanderthals shared this ability. In fact, the belief that Neanderthals were cognitively inferior to humans has been given as a reason for why they died out.
However, a recent find challenges the idea that Neanderthals were incapable of symbolic thought. Scallop and cockle shells showing traces of applied pigment were found in two caves in southeastern Spain. The shells are estimated to be about 50,000 years old; fossil evidence of modern humans in the area goes back only 40,000 years.
Several past discoveries have suggested that Neanderthals might have created what could be considered jewelry or art. The evidence was scanty, and these earlier discoveries were generally not interpreted as true instances of symbolic thinking. This new evidence, however, combined with the earlier finds, seems to indicate that we’ve been underestimating the mental capacities of this fascinating species. In fact, this article from Scientific American even suggests that rather than developing jewelry independently, Neanderthals might have taught humans how to make art, or vice versa.
The findings will appear in the January 11 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, and are available online now:
Symbolic use of marine shells and mineral pigments by Iberian Neandertals
João Zilhão, Diego E. Angelucci, Ernestina Badal-García, Francesco d’Errico, Floréal Daniel, Laure Dayet, Katerina Douka, Thomas F. G. Higham, María José Martínez-Sánchez, Ricardo Montes-Bernárdez, Sonia Murcia-Mascarós, Carmen Pérez-Sirvent, Clodoaldo Roldán-García, Marian Vanhaeren, Valentín Villaverde, Rachel Wood, and Josefina Zapata.