From the news coverage of a new study concluding that Neandertals, like modern humans, engaged in symbolic behavior, you might think the study settles a long-standing debate between researchers who think Neandertals were stupid and those who think they were smart. But there really isn't such a debate: Most anthropologists agree that the big-brained Neandertals had some hefty cognitive capabilities. Rather, the finding that Neandertals apparently wore mollusk shells as jewelry and used them as paint containers offers insight about the social conditions under which symbolism flourished among early modern humans but was rare among Neandertals.
The paper, published online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that "Neandertals, too, had such [symbolic] capacities," says John Speth, an archaeologist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
The shells were found in the Aviones cave and the Antón rock shelter, Neandertal sites in southeast Spain radiocarbon dated to between about 40,000 and 50,000 years ago. An international team led by archaeologist João Zilhão of the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom examined three cockleshells from Aviones that were perforated near their hinges and found lying alongside lumps of yellow and red pigments. A fourth, unperforated, thorny oyster shell contained residues of red and black pigments and was perhaps used as a paint container, the team says. At Antón, the team analyzed a large perforated scallop shell painted on its external side with an orange blend of pigments, perhaps to make the outside of the shell resemble the naturally red inside surface.
"The authors make a good case" that the shells and pigments were used in "an aesthetic and presumably symbolic" way, says archaeologist Erella Hovers of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Although Neandertal symbolism was relatively rare, personal ornaments become more common at their sites when modern humans migrated into the area about 40,000 years ago. So some archaeologists argue that the Neandertals copied modern forms of symbolic expression rather than inventing their own. But that does not mean they were not capable of creating their own symbols much earlier, Speth says. "The assumption [has been] that when you first see symbolic media such as ornaments, that's the first time humans had the mental wherewithal to make them. By that logic, humans lacked the cognitive capacities necessary to invent the atomic bomb until World War II. That is obviously nonsense."
However, Randall White, an archaeologist at New York University in New York City, says that the paper's authors have set up a "straw person," saying that he "know[s] no credible archaeologists who adhere to the stupid Neandertals view." Nevertheless, he and other researchers agree with the authors' primary explanation for why art is common in modern human sites and rare at Neandertal ones: social and demographic factors. In this view, Neandertals, with relatively low population densities, lacked the widespread social networks that would have required greater symbolic communication within and between population groups. Says Hovers: Early humans engaged in symbolic behavior "when it was advantageous" and when "populations were stable enough over time to keep these canons and traditions alive."