Monday, August 23, 2010

Portrait of the artist as a Neanderthal

In a recent paper, O. Moro Abadia and M.R. Gonzales Morales (2010) argue that an important component of the 'multiple species model' (MSM) that sees Neanderthals as having essentially 'modern' behavioral capacities and that originated in the late 90's is based not so much on new discoveries as it is on new ways of looking at the ResearchBlogging.orgarchaeological record. Specifically, they make the case that part of why Neanderthals have become associated with artistic capacity signaling 'modern' behavior is a growing awareness over the past 30 years or so of the fact that personal ornaments and mobiliary (i.e., portable) art such as statuettes and engraved pieces are intrinsically symbolic in nature. This has resulted in what they claim is a paradigmatic shift away from considering cave art as the sole diagnostic of developed artistic (and by extension symbolic) capacities, to one that sees ornaments and mobiliary art as fundamental markers of that capacity. In turn, the association of Neanderthals with ornaments - based especially on Chatelperronian assemblages from Arcy-sur-Cure and Quincay - has likewise shifted the general perception of them towards a more 'human' prehistoric hominin over the past generation.

This is an interesting paper that makes some worthwhile points and provides some good food for thought. First, even though the idea of a Neanderthal authorship of the Chatelperronian has recently come under fire, the fact that pierced shells and coloring material have been found in even older Mousterian contexts renders moot the question of whether Neanderthals had the capacity to use and produce such technology in the absence of H. sapiens stimulus. Second, it's noteworthy that recent claims (i.e., in the past decade) about the much greater time depth of archaeologically visible traces of symbolic behavior in Africa are all based on this kind of evidence (e.g., engraved ochre at Blombos, early ochre use at PP13 and other sites, pierced shells in South and North Africa, etc.). In fact, prior to what Moro Abadia and Gonzales Morales consider the 'reconceptualization' of Paleolithic art, it was widely agreed that the Middle Stone Age and the Middle Paleolithic were very similar.

To their analysis, I would only add observations about two other aspects of the fundamental impact of considering ornaments as reflective of artistic and symbolic behavior. First, part of why personal ornaments and ochre became the focus of so much attention beginning in the 80's was that they were argued by people like Randy White to characterize the Aurignacian, in contrast to the Mousterian which lacked them (White 1992, 2006). This was in part driven by the observation that Paleolithic cave art was essentially absent from the Aurignacian record even though that technocomplex was argued to be the expression of the arrival of symbolically-enhanced modern humans in Europe. Even if one includes the Fumane and Chauvet art, we're hardly talking about a very abundant record, especially compared to later periods of the Paleolithic. Therefore, rightfully broadening the definition of 'art' to include personal ornaments at first distinguished Neanderthals from  modern humans, though that kind of evidence soon made it clear that Neanderthals also were symbolic beings, at least to an extent. In an unexpected twist, though, this reconceptualization of what is 'art' combined to a renewed interest in the MSA record during the 2000's ultimately ended up establishing that artistic behavior was a integral component of the behavior of at least some modern human groups much earlier than for Neanderthals as a whole.

My second observation is about the durability of ornaments. Ornaments are more resilient than cave art, since they don't need the exceptional preservation conditions of the latter to preserve in the archaeological record. If bones are present in a Paleolithic deposits, odds are that any associated ornaments made of, say, ivory, will also preserve, unlike most cave art which requires unusually stable temperature and humidity to preserve longer than a few hundred years.  By extension, considering ornaments 'art' means that, on purely probabilistic grounds, the first expressions of symbolic behavior would be traced back much further in time than if only identified on the basis of parietal art. The recent discoveries in Africa pushing ornament use to about 82kya clearly underscore the underappreciated importance of their sheer relative durability although, unlike for parietal art, human agency in perforating these early shells needs to be demonstrated rather than assumed.

Clearly, then, the authors are right in emphasizing the impact on paleoanthropological research of redefining Paleolithic artistic behavior to include personal ornaments (and portable art more broadly). This is true for an even wider range of reasons than even they discuss. I like this snippet of their concluding paragraph, which I think neatly sums up one of their fundamental points:

"While some specialists have a tendency to believe that science develops through the accumulation of discoveries and inventions, the MSM illustrates how scientific research is also influenced by theoretical paradigms that generate and sustain knowledge, determining the questions that are asked and those that are excluded. The latter statement does not imply that science is exclusively driven by conceptual propositions. Rather, we suggest that conceptual, technical and factual developments are interlinked... We have focused upon the theoretical dimension of the new discourses about Neanderthals and art to argue that scientific developments are not part of an ever-growing piecemeal process, but one influenced by a set of factual discoveries, previous knowledge, current beliefs and disciplinary paradigms."



White, R. (1992). Beyond Art: Toward an Understanding of the Origins of Material Representation in Europe Annual Review of Anthropology, 21 (1), 537-564 DOI: 10.1146/

White, R. (2006). The Women of Brassempouy: A Century of Research and Interpretation Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, 13 (4), 250-303 DOI: 10.1007/s10816-006-9023-z


Anne Gilbert said...

It seems to me that if Neandertals were "symbolic to an extent", then they could use symbols, period. How they used symbols could well have been "different" in some ways from the way early "moderns" used them, is probably another question, but might simply indicate some sort of cultural differences. OTOH, broadening the definition of "symbol" to include more things than cave paintings is a good thing here, whoever made what symbolic piece of art or ornamentation.

Millán Mozota said...

I've done my own post about this paper, in spanish


Julien Riel-Salvatore said...

Anne -
agreed, and while I also agree that expanding the meaning of 'art' to include other things than cave paintings is good, I think the paper does a good job of showing just how significant that theoretical switch actually was.

Julien Riel-Salvatore said...

Millán -
thanks for the link. I'll be sure to comment on your post.

Anne Gilbert said...


Frankly, I'm pleased that at least people in the field are beginning to acknowledge that Neandertals were human enough to actuallyuse symbolic behavior of some kind. This, unfortunately, has been hotly debated, as has just about everything else we think we know about them.