Washington: Scientists have discovered ancient painted scallops and cockleshells in Spain, which is the first hard evidence that Neanderthals made jewellery, thus suggesting that they were capable of symbolism, sweeping away age-old thinking that they were stupid.
Body ornaments made of painted and pierced seashells dating back 70,000 to 1,20,000 years have been found in Africa and the Near East for years, and serve as evidence of symbolic thought among the earliest modern humans.
The absence of similar finds in Europe at that time, when it was Neanderthal territory, has supported the notion that they lacked symbolism, a potential sign of mental inferiority that might help explain why modern humans eventually replaced them.
Although hints of Neanderthal art and jewellery have cropped up in recent years, such as pierced and grooved animal-tooth pendants or a decorated limestone slab on the grave of a child, these have often been shrugged off as artefacts mixed in from modern humans, imitation without understanding, or ambiguous in nature.
Now, according to a report in Scientific American, archaeologist Joao Zilhao at the University of Bristol in England and his colleagues have found 50,000-year-old jewelry at two caves in southeastern Spain, art dating back 10,000 years before the fossil record reveals evidence of modern humans entering Europe.
At the Cueva (Cave) Anton, the scientists unearthed a pierced king scallop shell painted with orange pigment made of yellow goethite and red hematite collected some five kilometres from that site.
In material collected from the Cueva de los Aviones, alongside quartz and flint artifacts were bones from horses, deer, ibex, rabbits and tortoises as well as seashells from edible cockles, mussels, limpets and snails.
The researchers also discovered two pierced dog-cockleshells painted with traces of red hematite pigment.
No dyes were found on the food shells or stone tools, suggesting the jewelry was not just painted at random.
These discoveries, in combination with earlier findings hinting at Neanderthal ornaments and funerary practices, suggest that "Neanderthals had the same capabilities for symbolism, imagination and creativity as modern humans," Zilhao said.
According to anthropologist Erik Trinkaus at Washington University in Saint Louis, "I'm hoping that this will start to bury the idea that's been around for 100 years-that Neanderthals died out because they were stupid."