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.
Anthropologists have unearthed the remains of an apparent Neanderthal cave sleeping chamber, complete with a hearth and nearby grass beds that might have once been covered with animal fur.
Neanderthals inhabited the cozy Late Pleistocene room, located within Esquilleu Cave in Cantabria, Spain, anywhere between 53,000 to 39,000 years ago, according to a Journal of Archaeological Science paper concerning the discovery.
Living the ultimate clean and literally green lifestyle, the Neanderthals appear to have constructed new beds out of grass every so often, using the old bedding material to help fuel the hearth.
"It is possible that the Neanderthals renewed the bedding each time they visited the cave," lead author Dan Cabanes told Discovery News.
Cabanes, a researcher at the Weizmann Institute of Science's Kimmel Center for Archaeological Research, added that these hearth-side beds also likely served as sitting areas during waking hours for the Neanderthals.
"In some way, they were used to make the area near the hearths more comfortable," he said, mentioning that artifacts collected from various other Neanderthal sites suggest the inhabitants prepared stone tools, cooked, ate and snoozed near warming fires.
For this study, Cabanes and his team collected sediment samples from the Spanish cave. Detailed analysis of the samples allowed the scientists to reconstruct what materials were once present in certain parts of the cave at particular times.
The bedding material was identified based on the presence and arrangement of multiple phytoliths from grasses near the hearth area. Phytoliths are tiny fossilized particles formed of mineral matter by a once-living plant.
There was no evidence of plants growing, soil developing or animal transport of phytoliths via dung, so the scientists believe the only plausible explanation is that Neanderthals gathered the grass and placed it in this room of the cave.
While the hearth contained some grass phytoliths, most belonged to wood and bark, "indicating that this material was the main type of fuel used," according to the researchers. Some animal bones were also tossed into the hearth, perhaps to dispose of them after dinner and/or for use as extra fire fuel.
Evidence is building that Neanderthals in other locations constructed such functional living spaces within caves and rock shelters.
Earlier this year, Josep Vallverdu of the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution and his team identified a "sleeping activity area" at Spain's Abric Romani rock shelter.
Similar to the Esquilleu Cave finds, Vallverdu and his colleagues discovered the remains of hearths spaced enough for seating and sleeping areas.
"This set of combustion activity areas suggests analogy with sleeping and resting activity areas of modern foragers," Vallverdu and his team wrote. They added that such information can allow anthropologists to estimate the size of Neanderthal populations, in addition to learning more about how they lived.
The big question, according to Cabanes, is how such a resourceful species went extinct.
"In my opinion, Neanderthal extinction may have been caused by several factors working at the same time," he said. "Environmental changes, a slightly different social organization, a different rate of reproduction, spread of diseases, direct competition for resources and many other factors may have played an important role in the fate of Neanderthals."
He and other researchers have also not ruled out that Neanderthals were simply absorbed into the modern human population.
Cabanes is hopeful that future analysis of phytoliths, as well as other less obvious clues that have often been overlooked by scientists in the past, may shed additional light on the still-mysterious Neanderthals.
The 34th session of the World Heritage Committee meeting in Brasilia has declared the site of Siega Verde in Salamanca, new World Heritage Site in extension of Coa Valley in Portugal.
The Prehistoric rock-art ensemble in the Côa Valley, Portugal, inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1998, is an exceptional concentration of rock carvings from the Upper Palaeolithic (22,000-10,000 B.C.) and is on a scale that makes it the most outstanding example of early human artistic activity in this form anywhere in the world. The archaeological zone of Siega Verde, in the Castilla y León region (Spain), completes the site. The 645 engravings were made on an impressive cliff, the result of erosion by the river. They are mostly figurative, representing animals, although some schematic and geometric figures have also been identified. The prehistoric rock-art sites of the Côa Valley and Siega Verde represent the most remarkable open-air ensemble of Palaeolithic art on the Iberian Peninsula.
A 5,000 year old ceremonial building in Orkney (Scotland) has revealed a unique treasure. Two stone slabs bearing red, yellow and orange pigment are the first evidence of painted walls ever found in the UK. "To find coloured Neolithic paint - 5,000-year-old Dulux - is something we never expected to see", said Nick Card, from the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology. The discovery was made by 22-year old Dutch archaeologist Anniek Manshanden, who was clearly thrilled. She said: "To have found evidence of the first Neolithic painted building is awesome."
The paint will be subjected to laboratory analysis to determine its composition. It is probably based upon hematite or limonite, two iron ores found in the region. These would have been finely ground and mixed with animal fat, milk or eggs to create pigments.
Since this is the first finding of its kind, it is not known if walls were commonly painted or if this was reserved for ceremonial structures such as the 'cathedral' at Ness of Brodgar where the discovery was made. There is speculation that decorative markings carved into the sandstone of the interior walls may also have been enhanced with color.
Sources: The Ness of Brodgar Excavations, BBC News (26 July 2010), The Scotsman (28 July 2010)