Prehistoric Jewelry Reveals Neanderthal Fashion Sense

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This decorative shell likely adorned the neck of a Neanderthal around 50,000 years ago. Joao Zilhao
Joao Zilhao

Even Neanderthals knew how to accessorize.

Pigment-stained seashells, likely worn as necklaces by Neanderthals, suggest these early Europeans were not only stylish, but that they were also just as smart and crafty as humans in Africa were, according to a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The colorful mollusk shells, which date to 50,000 years ago, were recently found in Murcia Province, Spain. Since the shells were painted 10,000 years before modern humans are believed to have settled in Europe, this leaves little doubt that Neanderthals made the still eye-catching pieces.

Humans in Africa at the time created comparable objects, so lead author Joao Zilhao and his team believe both groups of hominids were on equal intellectual footing.

Neanderthal "intelligence was no different from ours," Zilhao, a professor of paleolithic archaeology at the University of Bristol, told Discovery News.

"Their societies had the same kind of band level organization documented among contemporary hunter-gatherers and inferred from prehistoric ones," he added.

Although most of the stained shells were perforated, the researchers think the holes occurred naturally, and that Neanderthals preferentially gathered the necklace-ready objects on nearby beaches.

A paint cup and ground up coloring agents were also found near the stained shells. One particularly well-preserved shell had a natural red coloration on one side while its reverse was painted with an orange pigment made out of the minerals goethite and hematite.

Such "artwork" indicates Neanderthals possessed symbolic thinking, a skill most often attributed to our species.

Zilhao explains that "age, sex, family, clan affiliation, status" and more can all be communicated by things like jewelry and tattoos, which Neanderthals are also believed to have sported.

Was it just a coincidence that humans in Africa were also making similar body ornaments during the Middle Paleolithic? Zilhao and his team think not, and intriguingly propose that cultural exchange and interbreeding occurred between the two groups.

"Neanderthals (and) early humans in Europe, Africa and Asia never ceased to be connected by networks of genetic and cultural exchange," Zilhao said. "Innovations, therefore, would have traveled across such networks."

This isn't the first time that such exchanges, including interbreeding, have been proposed and studied by scientists. A prior Science study on DNA from both Neanderthal and Homo sapiens indicated that the genomes for both groups are greater than 99.5 percent identical.

Co-author Jonathan Pritchard, a University of Chicago professor of human genetics, said: "We do not exclude the possibility of modest levels of genome admixture."

While this issue continues to be debated among others within the scientific community, Zilhao and his team hope that, at least for now, the new shell findings will put to rest "the notion that Neanderthals were devoid of symbolism" and suffering from "cognitive inferiority."

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