Debates over the symbolic behavior of Neanderthals have always been hampered by the unreliability of much of the evidence invoked in support of it. That is to say two things: 1) there are not very many artifacts that are suggestive of symbolic behavior; and 2) those that do exist are often plagued by ambiguity as to whether they are the result of purposeful Neanderthal action or the result of non-human factors.
Over the past few years, pigment use has been claimed to differentiate the symbolic capacity of Homo sapiens from those of Neanderthals, and as one of the defining elements of ‘modern behavior.’ This is partly why the discovery of pigment use – presumably by early Homo sapiens – dating back to 167 kya in
There is some convincing evidence that Neanderthals demonstrated symbolic behavior, especially in the latter moments of their evolutionary history (e.g., d’Errico 2003, d’Errico et al. 2003), but so far there has been little in the way of published work about their use of pigments prior to the Châtelperronian. A paper by Marie Soressi and Francesco d’Errico (2007 – available as a freely accessible pdf), however, presents very convincing evidence for that behavior at least by 60 kya (see also d’Errico and Soressi 2006). That study reviews the evidence for Neanderthal symbolic behavior as a whole, but it contains one section specifically dedicated to the question of identifying pigment use in European Middle Paleolithic assemblages, at least 70 of which have yielded blocks of coloring materials (mainly black-colored manganese dioxide) and/or tools involved in the processing of pigments such as grindstones and mortars (Soressi and d’Errico 2007:303).
The reason why this ongoing study is so convincing is that the authors used replicative referents that objectively establish the microscopic and rugosimetric features of blocks of coloring materials worked in different manners and with different tools. This provides an objective baseline against which to compare the characteristics of objects found in assemblages attributed to Neanderthals and to determine whether they bear evidence of having been purposefully manufactured by human action.
In the case of the specific study conducted by the authors – on the French Mousterian sites of Pech de l’Azé I and Pech de l’Azé IV, located about 80 meters apart – they created a series of experimental referents obtained through 13 kinds of modifications/uses, including scraping for powder with a flint object, abrading against various kinds of stone, coloring leather, and drawing body paintings (Soressi and d’Errico 2007:304). The preliminary results of their analysis show that 250+ blocks from Pech I and 20+ blocks from Pech IV appear to have been modified by Neanderthals:
“… of the Pech de l’Azé I blocks, over half were abraded on sandstone before being used on soft materials such as dried skin, or human skin. Neanderthals seem to have abraded the pigments on sandstone slabs that were also recovered during excavation so as to create elongated facets with strong coloring properties that could be used in the manner of a charcoal pencil to mark various materials, including human skin in the case of body painting. The blocks from Pech IV appear to have been used in largely similar manners. However, some pieces bear grooves resulting from scraping their surface with flakes or retouched tools. This indicates that, beyond using [manganese dioxide] in pencil form, Neanderthals also manufactured coloring powder used either as is, or more likely mixed to some binding agent. (Soressi and d’Errico 2007:306; my translation)
Since environmental condition and local manganese abundance appear to be comparable for the two sites, the authors interpret the disparity in the number of manganese pieces between Pech I and IV as resulting from contextual factors, suggesting that coloring was not equally important in all contexts or site-occupation modalities. Also, I especially like this section about what the use of coloring material might mean in terms of Neanderthal symbolic capacity:
“It would be hard to confirm a purely functional use [of coloring materials]; in fact, such a use would be nearly impossible to demonstrate if we consider the omnipresent nature of symbols in human societies. If the model provided by known foragers is extended to Neanderthals, the systematic use of pigments in a strong argument in favor of their capacity to develop symbolic cultural practices.” (Soressi and d’Errico 2007:306; my translation)
d’Errico, F . 2003. The invisible frontier: A multiple-species model for the origin of behavioral modernity. Evolutionary Anthropology 12:188–202.
d’Errico, F., C. Henshilwood, G. Lawson, M. Vanhaeren, A.-M. Tillier, M. Soressi, F . Bresson, B. Maureille, A. Nowell, J. Lakarra, L. Backwell, and M. Julien. 2003. Archaeological evidence for the emergence of language, symbolism, and music: an alternative multidisciplinary perspective. Journal of World Prehistory 17:1–70.
d’Errico F., and M. Soressi, 2006 Des hommes en couleurs. Les Dossiers de la Recherche 24: 84-87.
Marean, C. W., M. Bar-Matthews, J. Bernatchez, E. Fisher, P. Goldberg, A. I. R. Herries, Z. Jacobs, A. Jerardino, P. Karkanas, T. Minichillo, P. J. Nilssen, E. Thompson, I. Watts, and H. M. Williams. 2007. Early human use of marine resources and pigment in
Soressi, M., and F. d’Errico. 2007. Pigments, gravures, parures: Les comportements symboliques controversées des Néandertaliens. In Les Néandertaliens. Biologie et cultures (B. Vandermeersch and B. Maureille, eds.), pp. 297-309. Editions du CTHS, Paris.