Friday, January 25, 2008

Neanderthals, Now in Color!

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 South Africa was such big news this past fall (Marean et al. 2007). The basic idea here is that the purposeful collecting and shaping of blocks of coloring material is indicative of behavior in which colors were used to transmit socially-mediated information.

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 South Africa during the Middle Pleistocene. Nature 449:905-908.

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.


Anne Gilbert said...

I have posted a link to this on my Palanthsci list and I am about to post a comment about this on my blog, The Writer's Daily Grind at:

Frankly, I think it's about time somebody recognized that whatever differences there were between Neandertals and ourselves, they did not reside in supposed inabilities to do things that "modern" humans consider "natural", like drawing and symbolic expression. Too bad there is no Neandertal cave art. That would shut the naysayers up.
Anne G

Glen Gordon said...

Yes, wonderful! Also when (re)considering how similar we may be in linguistic capability, then we start to see that the rigid us-versus-them walls so artificially placed between modern humans and Neanderthals in the past are slowly crumbling away. Let the walls come down. There's no place in the 21st century for antiquated notions of human supremacy.

Anne Gilbert said...

Unfortunately, the "us v. them" mentality dies hard. Because of this, there is sure to be some study in the future that purports to show that what looks like symbolic(or other) behavior in Neandertals, is "really" something else. The "us v. them" mentality is also one of the reasons the "Neandertal debate" has gone on so long.
anne G

Julien Riel-Salvatore said...

Anne, Gordon - It's always interesting to see how different people spin discoveries about Neanderthal behavior. The fundamental question here boils down with whether we use a common interpretive benchmark for all hominins, or whether we can justify starting from different perspectives for different hominins (e.g., sapiens can be assumed to be like us until proven different, Neanderthals can be assumed to be different from us until proven similar beyond the shadow of a doubt). Theoretically, there's some justification for both perspectives, to a degree, though I don't see how you can fit both approaches together when comparing the two groups. That is, I can see how one could adopt either perspective if they were dealing with assemblages made by Neanderthals or by sapiens, but not if they're comparing assemblages made by both. I personally like the perspective adopted by Soressi & d'Errico, which is to use a single framework, which is more consistent in my view.

And Anne, thanks for the link!


Unknown said...

I am interested that it is mostly black pigment.
Will go and read the paper now! thanks for flagging this up Julien, I might have missed it while I drown in the numbers of my data analysis :)

Anne Gilbert said...

Julien and all:

I think this blog is very, very good. In fact, I think it's one of the best blogs for archaeology-related material, that I've seen anywhere so far. So I do everything I can to draw it to people's attention, so they will visit it. Tbat is why I linked A Very Remote Period Indeed to my own blog, which is partly about my writing process, but also partly about prehistoric material.

And I do feel that Julien is right that people who study the prehistoric tool assemblages of "modern" and "archaic" people, should use the same standard for judging both, whatever that standard happens to be. Unfortunately, I don't think this has quite penetrated to some quarters of the archazeological community yet.
Anne G

Glen Gordon said...

I'm looking at human origins from a linguistic point of view. So forgive me I seem like a weirdo when I assert that I'm personally certain with all of my heart that Neanderthals not only had the capacity for symbolic thought but also had fully-formed languages just like human beings.

However, part of the reason why this is still so hard to fathom for many people is because of the typical human-supremacy propoganda that I see in many articles, such as from the BBC site: Neanderthal's Gift of Speech. The idea that Neanderthals could speak is presented as a brilliant revelation rather than a foregone conclusion.

What I find interesting is that throughout the entire article, the author speaks about nothing other than the larynx of Neanderthals and how it might have or might not have been capable of speech. So nowhere in the article does it dawn on the author (nor probably the reader) that gestural communication, as used in the deaf community, is also a valid form of "language". No one can fathom Neanderthals signing in caves. Even though Koko the gorilla and other primates are fully capable of doing it, as well as teaching their offspring how to do it on their own.

So I'll go out on a limb and suggest that the only thing that fueled the beginning of "language" and complex grammar had nothing to do with some mysterious "grammar gene" or "the development of the larynx" but rather the simple innovation of bipedalism itself. Free hands, watch 'em speak, people!

Anyone care to rebuttal? :)

Anne Gilbert said...


I'm not going to rebut anything you've said, because you may be on to something here(or you may not; this is science, after all!). However, I will say that I think most explanations I have seen, for things like the development of language tend to be overly simplistic.
Anne G

Glen Gordon said...

Oh well, I guess I'm going to have to pull some of these great links together and make my own blog entry on that one of these days ;) I think there are a lot of things about the "humanity" of ancient humanoids that haven't yet been said, and paleolinguistics is an untouched treasure trove of intellectual goodies.

Julien Riel-Salvatore said...

A bit late on the comments, but it's busy over here!

Becky - I also think that these pigments are black is not coincidental; if Neanderthals were fair-skinned (which appears to have been the case), black would have marked their skin just fine. Additionally, just like there are many ethnographically-documented symbolic associations with the color red, there are likely just as many associated with the color black.

Anne - thanks for the kind comments, I do what I can! I'm glad people think some of this is useful and/or thought-provoking... at least on occasion!

Glen - I come from a background where gestual language is important indeed, so I see no reason to disagree with you. If course, then you get into the tricky business of inferring systematized gestures archaeologically, though I guess a case could be made for that on the basis of regularities in the production of material culture, which do indeed stretch pretty far back in time. That could indeed be encoding some kind of gestual grammar that might be related, at least in part, to communication.

Anne Gilbert said...

I suspect gestures were very important in the development of language, which is why "gestural language" is still very important, though perhaps more so in some languages than others. But I also suspect that Neandertals actually were able to talk to one another and express complex concepts verbally. But how one would determine just how far back these things go, is something else entirely.
Anne G

Anonymous said...

Good Job! :)

Anonymous said...

For Anne in regards to the Neanderthals and cave art: I recommend you consult the following article:
"Antiquity and Authorship of the Chauvet Rock Art" by Robert Bednarik in Rock Art Research, May 2007. You will find there some enticing arguments/suggestions in favor of Neanderthals as the manufacturers of the earliest iconography in the Chauvet cave.

Dr. Yann-Pierre Montelle
Rock art Researcher
New Zealand

Anne Gilbert said...


It just so happens I tracked down the Bednarik paper you mentione -- I don't know exactly how or where I tracked it, but I got a pdf and it's now in my files. He does make a strong case -- at least from his POV -- for assigning the Chauvet Cave material to Neandertals. The problem is that, while I, and some others, have a lot of resAnpect for his work, few people believe Dr. Bednarik. And at present, I am "agnostic" about exactly who painted Chauvet Cave, or even when it was done, since even now, there seems to be a lot of argument about it. However, I have absolutely no doubt that Neandertals were perfectly capable symbolists, so to speak.
Anne G

Anonymous said...


That is what happens when someone dares breaking away from the paralyzing orthodoxy. I have worked (and still does) with Robert in Australia and I think I can vouch for his dedication to constantly challenge this orthodoxy. That the Neanderthals drew some of the iconography in Chauvet is not necessarily the important point here - that the late Neanderthals were under the same socio-economic stresses as the "moderns" is the critical point here. If this can be proven, then the so-called Chatelperonian will become extended so that it provides sufficient time to allow techniques of assimilations to be institutionalized in order to guarantee the survival of BOTH species. Beyond this point, the cognitive capacities and haplogroups distinctions will have to be readjusted as to fit the requirements for basic "needs". Here is a word that should be more carefully examined when investigating the motivations for hybridizations


PS: As for the dates in Chauvet, despite the ridiculous objections by Bahn, Pettit, and Zuchner, there are in sufficient numbers (increased in the last two years) and followed rigorous protocols to be trusted.

Anne Gilbert said...

Dr. Montelle:

Don't worry. I'm quite familiar with Dr. Bednarik's writings on this and related subjects, and there is absolutely no question in my mind, of his dedication, no matter how "controversial" he may be. I generally agree with a lot of what he says. I merely pointed out that many people in the paleoanthropology community don't. As far as Neandertals, "moderns", and their "needs" are concerned, the problem, as I see it, is that this same paleoanthropology community seems to look at these things nowadays, from a strictly "genetic" POV, without seeming to consider the overall similarity in "lifestyles", behavior, and other, more apparently "esoteric" things like population sizes(for both groups, relatively small, until much later), and so on. My feeling is,therefore,that Dr.Bednarik will seem to continue to challenge "orthodoxy" on this and other related issues, until there is a genuine shift in the thinking of most in the paleoanthropology and prehistoric archaeology communities.
Anne G