"It seems we have all been guilty of defaming Neanderthal man" declared a recent Editorial in The Guardian. This comment was triggered by a report documenting evidence for the use of pigments and decorative shells by Neanderthals. This is claimed to have occurred many years before any direct contact with modern humans, thereby undermining any thought that the artefacts did not really represent Neanderthal culture. Personal adornment, using a variety of colours, implies an aesthetic sense and an appreciation of symbolism. Since Neanderthals have often been presented as lacking these "modern" traits, the new research demands a reappraisal.
This decorative shell likely adorned the neck of a Neanderthal (Image credit Joao Zilhao, Source here)
It may be helpful to describe the findings by reference to a design methodology. Two archaeological sites from the Murcia province of southern Spain have yielded artefacts. Apart from the usual stone tools and hearth features, there are a variety of perforated shells and a striking range of coloured pigments. Elsewhere in the world, such finds are associated with personal ornamentation.
Red coloured pigments are made from mixtures of siderite, goethite, hematite and nontronite. Yellow coloured colorants were of siderite and natrojarosite. These minerals are not found at levels where they could be collected by Neanderthals in the immediate environment, although the authors report sources for the red materials 3-5 km to the northwest, and the closest source for the yellow materials is 7 km to the east. The options are: Law (the minerals were deposited by hydrothermal processes locally); Chance (the materials have been carried to the area by water flow or some other mechanism) and Design (Neanderthals sourced the pigments and brought them to the site). However, after considering pros and cons of these options, the authors are in no doubt about the implications. They conclude: "These pigments can only be manuports". The Design inference is the most parsimonious.
A similar, but more complex, analysis of the perforated shells was made. The authors find no essential difference between their Spanish material and other finds from Africa and the Near East where the "symbolic implications of body painting and of the ornamental use of pigment-stained and perforated marine shells are uncontroversial". This has led to the authors claiming a high degree of confidence in their conclusions about the "modern" behaviour of Neanderthals. According to BBC News:
"Professor Zilhao explained that the findings were dated at 10,000 years before any contact between Neanderthals and modern humans. "To me, it's the smoking gun that kills the argument once and for all," he told BBC News. "The association of these findings with Neanderthals is rock-solid and people have to draw the associations and bury this view of Neanderthals as half-wits.""
Once the implications of the new research sinks home, a different light is shed on previously reported cultural artefacts. Take, for example, the occurrence of "pierced and grooved animal teeth in Neandertal-associated archeological cultures (such as the Chatelperronian of France)". Because of contemporaneous modern humans, this has been explained by "stratigraphic mixing" or "imitation without understanding". However, it could equally well be explained as "independent Neandertal innovation". This is the conclusion reached by the lead author and his team:
"When considering the nature of the cultural and genetic exchanges that occurred between Neanderthals and modern humans at the time of contact in Europe, we should recognise that identical levels of cultural achievement had been reached by both sides." (source here)
We have had a long-sustained exposure to the idea that Neanderthals were sub-human. They have been presented as slow, lumbering, dim-witted and brutish! Most people are likely to think that Neanderthals could not use words to speak. Will the new research change perceptions?
"It's very difficult to dislodge the brutish image from popular thinking," Professor Stringer told BBC News. "When football fans behave badly, or politicians advocate reactionary views, they are invariably called 'Neanderthal', and I can't see the tabloids changing their headlines any time soon."
The situation we find ourselves in has come about because the Darwinist explanation of human origins has been adopted by our culture. The Darwin origins myth requires a gradual evolution of both anatomy and culture - from ape to man. Neanderthal Man has been part of this story - he is the archetypal intermediary. Despite many evidences to the contrary, little has been done to remove the myth. Indications of cultural sophistication were interpreted as Neanderthals trading artefacts with modern humans, or imitating without understanding. This is a good example of 'saving the paradigm' in a Kuhnian sense, whereby the old paradigm clings on by force-fitting contrary evidences into the accepted theoretical model. It is time to discard the Darwinian mindset that presupposes gradual evolution. Let researchers be free to approach the evidence with multiple working hypotheses and engage in a more rigorous programme of hypothesis testing and analysis.
Symbolic use of marine shells and mineral pigments by Iberian Neandertals
Joao Zilhao, Diego E. Angelucci, Ernestina Badal-Garcia, Francesco d'Errico, Floreal Daniel, Laure Dayet, Katerina Douka, Thomas F. G. Higham, Maria Jose Martinez-Sanchez, Ricardo Montes-Bernardez, Sonia Murcia-Mascaros, Carmen Perez-Sirvent, Clodoaldo Roldan-Garcia, Marian Vanhaeren, Valentin Villaverde, Rachel Wood and Josefina Zapata
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, published online before print January 11, 2010 | doi:10.1073/pnas.0914088107
Abstract: Two sites of the Neandertal-associated Middle Paleolithic of Iberia, dated to as early as approximately 50,000 years ago, yielded perforated and pigment-stained marine shells. At Cueva de los Aviones, three umbo-perforated valves of Acanthocardia and Glycymeris were found alongside lumps of yellow and red colorants, and residues preserved inside a Spondylus shell consist of a red lepidocrocite base mixed with ground, dark red-to-black fragments of hematite and pyrite. A perforated Pecten shell, painted on its external, white side with an orange mix of goethite and hematite, was abandoned after breakage at Cueva Anton, 60 km inland. Comparable early modern human-associated material from Africa and the Near East is widely accepted as evidence for body ornamentation, implying behavioral modernity. The Iberian finds show that European Neandertals were no different from coeval Africans in this regard, countering genetic/cognitive explanations for the emergence of symbolism and strengthening demographic/social ones.
Tyler, D. Images of evolution as secular icons, ARN Literature Blog (10 April 2009)
Tyler, D. The cognitive skills of Stone Age Man, ARN Literature Blog (29 June 2009)
Tyler, D. Darwinist thinking on the origin of religion, ARN Literature Blog (9 November 2009)
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