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Painting Neanderthals in a brighter light

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Ancient trait: A reconstruction of the face of a Neanderthal woman. Neanderthals were more cosmetically-minded than thought.
Ancient trait: A reconstruction of the face of a Neanderthal woman. Neanderthals were more cosmetically-minded than thought.

SAM JONES

For decades, our low-browed Neanderthal cousins have been portrayed as dim savages whose idea of seduction was a whispered “ug” and a blow to the cranium.

But analysis of pierced, hand-coloured shells and lumps of pigment from two caves in south-east Spain suggests the cavepeople who stomped around Europe 50,000 years ago were far more intelligent — and cosmetically minded — than previously thought.

In 1985, archaeologists excavating the Cueva de los Aviones in Murcia found cockle shells perforated as if to be hung on a necklace and an oyster shell containing mineral pigments, hinting that the cave’s Neanderthal residents had developed a taste for self-adornment and makeup.

Twenty-three years later, an expedition led by Joao Zilhao, professor of palaeolithic archaeology at the University of Bristol, turned up a pierced, orange-coloured scallop shell bearing traces of red and yellow pigment at another Murcian cave, Cueva Anton.

Despite its significance, however, the latter find was nearly overlooked.

“We forgot about it till later and then, when we were cleaning it, I realised that it was a shell,” said Zilhao.

It was then, said the professor, that it occurred to him the shell might corroborate the finds at Cueva de los Aviones, and prove Neanderthals were more sophisticated than they had been given credit for.

Analysis of the reddish residues from the oyster shell from Cueva de los Aviones had found a pigment made up of lepidocrocite, haematite, pyrite, and charcoal. The orange scallop shell found in Cueva Anton, meanwhile, had been coloured with red haematite and yellow goethite and was probably part of a necklace.

The small quantity of pigment recovered in the oyster shell also led the archaeologists to speculate that it had been made for use on the body.

As well as yielding evidence of mining, transportation and the ability to work to a complex recipe, said Zilhao, the existence of the cosmetics also provides an insight into Neanderthal psychology. Radiocarbon dating of the samples was carried out by the University of Oxford’s radiocarbon accelerator unit. Their tests established that the shells and charcoal found in the two caves could be traced back to around 50,000 years ago — around 10 millennia before the first appearance in Europe of early modern man. All of which, reckons Zilhao, shows that Neanderthals were doing many of the same things as their early modern human counterparts in Africa. The findings are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010


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