Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Colorful Neanderthals on the half shell


There’s been a lot of buzz about the new paper by Zilhão et al. (2010) on the use of pierced shells and pigments by Neanderthals at the sites of Cueva de los Aviones and Cueva Antón, in southern Spain some 50,000 years ago, so I thought I’d give a few comments about it here.

This is a very significant study in that it strengthens the conclusions of previous research that suggests that Neanderthals habitually used pigments (e.g., Soressi and d’Errico 2007, which I discussed here). Importantly, it also broadens the range of color of these pigments to include, beyond black, yellows, reds, and orange. This matters because of the contention by some (e.g., Watts 2002) that the red color of ochre has important symbolic connotations that black pigments couldn’t have (e.g., blood, life, menstruation, etc.), and that this is an important distinction between Neanderthal and ‘fully modern’ use of coloring. Credibly establishing the presence of a range of colorful pigments derived from external sources at both these sites (their mineral sources are at least 3-5km distant from either cave) is therefore a major contribution to our knowledge of Neanderthal behavior and some of its symbolic underpinnings.

It of major interest in this paper is the description of a fragmented horse metatarsal with a pointed tip that bears traces of orange pigment at Cueva de los Aviones. The authors argue that “this naturally pointed bone may have been used as a stiletto for the preparation or application of mineral dyes or as pin or awl to perforate soft materials (e.g., hides) that were themselves colored with such dyes.” The relevance of this observation is highlighted by the manganese ‘crayons’ that were found at the Mousterian site of Pech de l’Aze, France (Soressi and d’Errico 2007), since it establishes that Neanderthals were not only using pigments in a range of color, but also that they had a range of manners of applying it to surfaces. This strongly hints at Neanderthal pigment use being a flexible behavior that varied from context to context, in contrast to their oft-repeated characterization of people who knew how to do only a limited range of things but do them quite well (which was one of the recurrent sound bites in the Human Spark documentary recently shown on PBS and which I will discuss on this blog in coming days).

Of course, in this ornament-obsessed period of paleoanthropological research, much of the buzz the paper has been getting derives from the fact that pierced shells were also recovered from both sites, many of which bore pigments. Early shell ornaments and associated pigments, of course, have recently been in the news (and discussed on this blog) and the focus of much attention in helping identify behavioral modernity (e.g., d’Errico et al. 2009). The authors make a strong case for the pierced shells having been purposefully selected by humans as ornaments (even if it’s a bit hard to get a clear idea of the trends in other periods based on the graph in the supplementary info), even if some of the perforations appear natural, artfully pointing out the interpretive double-standard that is sometimes applied to evidence associated with Neanderthals as opposed to that associated with modern humans.

The discussion of Cueva Antón’s Pecten maximus upper shell valve as most likely representing an ornament is also very good. By describing that it was the external surface of this comparatively flat valve that was colored, and by stressing that Antón is currently 60km distant from the shore, the authors make a strong case for this interpretation. Even the most ardent critic is going to have to explain why and how this large and comparatively fragile colored marine shell reached this site, and the patterning of its coloration. From a parsimony standpoint, viewing it as an ornament is imminently reasonable.

Overall, I think the authors are fully justified in concluding
"that these innovations were fulfilling a need—aiding in thepersonalor social identification of people—that did not exist in the preceding two million years of human evolution. Our findings therefore support models of the emergence of behavioral modernity as caused by technological progress, demographic increase, and social complexification and show that there is no biunivocal correlation between “modern” anatomy and “modern” behavior" (Zilhão et al. 2010:5).

They also argue that the null hypothesis about the authorship of ornaments found with ‘transitional industries’ can now reasonably argued to be Neanderthals. The argument about population pressures driving social innovation is a convincing one in this context, since the northern Mediterranean shore appears to have served repeatedly as a Neanderthal refugium during their evolutionary history and the range of food resources available in these more mesic regions likely could have sustained larger populations than elsewhere across their range.

As is usual in studies of early ornaments, however, the sample size remains low, and we must remain careful about inferring too much from them. At present, what these new discovery establish is that Neanderthals used pigments in different parts of their range and applied them in different ways. As well, it establishes that Neanderthals in southern Spain used pierced shells as ornaments at least for a moment of their evolutionary history. This raises the thorny question of why such evidence has not been found in other Neanderthal sites. Is it because archaeologists were not looking for it? Or is it because this was a short-lived phenomenon that emerged in response to localized demographic conditions? And given that there are no transitional industries documented in Spain, is it warranted to link the ornaments from Los Aviones and Antón to those found in France, Italy and East-Central Europe during the transition interval? Whatever the case may be, it now is clear that archaeologists need to pay extra attention when dealing with Mousterian sites yielding shells, as we have convincing evidence that Neanderthals did, in some cases, use shell ornaments well before the transition.


d'Errico, F., M. Vanhaeren, N. Barton, A. Bouzouggar, H. Mienis, D. Richter, J.-J. Hublin, S. P. McPherron, and P. Lozouet. 2009. Additional evidence on the use of personal ornaments in the Middle Paleolithic of North Africa. PNAS 106:16051-16056.

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.

Watts, I. 2002. Ochre in the Middle Stone Age of Southern Africa: Ritualised Display or Hide Preservative? South African Archaeological Bulletin 57:1-14.

Zilhao, J., Angelucci, D., Badal-Garcia, E., d'Errico, F., Daniel, F., Dayet, L., Douka, K., Higham, T., Martinez-Sanchez, M., Montes-Bernardez, R., Murcia-Mascaros, S., Perez-Sirvent, C., Roldan-Garcia, C., Vanhaeren, M., Villaverde, V., Wood, R., & Zapata, J. (2010). Symbolic use of marine shells and mineral pigments by Iberian Neandertals Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0914088107


Maju said...

How can they be so sure that they were Neanderthals? The dates are already within the scope of H. sapiens expansion in Europe if we follow Hoffecker'09 (for example) and not too far from there, in Girona province there are some of the oldest remains of proto-Aurignacian, more or less the same date.

Julien Riel-Salvatore said...

Even with the calibrated dates the authors use in the paper, there is no evidence that there were modern humans anywhere close to southern Iberia at the time, even if some say they had started entering Europe from the Levant or Central Asia 45-50kya cal. Keep in mind, however, that this entry point is separated from southern Iberia by thousands of kilometers.

To the best of my knowledge, there is nothing that can be called proto-Aurignacian, Aurignacian or 'transitional' in southern Spain at 50kya cal. Also, this is the part of Europe where the most recent Mousterian industries (and hominin remains, in the case of Zaffaraya) have been found, dating to ca. 24kya, or about 28-29kya cal. Overall, even though no human remains appear to have been found at either Los Aviones or Anton, the evidence available points strongly to Neanderthals having made and used these artifacts.

In this case, based on current evidence, I think the authors are warranted in assuming Neanderthal authorship of these pierced shells and procurement and use of these pigments.

Maju said...

there is nothing that can be called proto-Aurignacian, Aurignacian or 'transitional' in southern Spain at 50kya cal.

Yes, of course. And I agree with the rest too. But if they were in Girona (arguable indeed), Murcia is just a few hundred kilometers away. The fact that the use of perforations has been argued as signal of H. sapiens (Mellars, Hoffecker) suggests that it could be an offshoot - or that this logic on perforations is essentially wrong.

Whatever the case, I have the feeling that attributing the findings to Neanderthals is less clear than some would like. I have a reasonable doubt, not about the use of abstract or aesthetic concepts by our cousins but about this specific finding being so rotundly attributed to Neanderthals, when is already in the more murky transition period.

Julien Riel-Salvatore said...

Maju -
Thanks for your comment. Well, Zilhao et al. argue in their paper that perforation actually should not be considered a hallmark of the behavior of modern humans, and they muster convincing empirical evidence to back up their position. So, on that level, perforation (of shells at least) cannot be taken as an archaeological proxy for modern humans.

I agree that taxonomic attribution of assemblages dating to the transition interval can be problematic (in fact, I've argued for this in some of my published work on the Uluzzian), however, in this case, given the time frame involved (the earliest beginning of the transtion interval) and the geographical location of the sites (in S. Spain, apparently one of the last Neanderthal 'holdouts'), I do think that the authors' case in associating these shells and pigments is quite solid.

CDRealist said...

I begin looking at holes in clamshells skeptically, because cone shells attack their prey by drilling neat little holes in their shells. I'd want to rule that out before assuming humans drilled the holes.

Julien Riel-Salvatore said...

On the question of whether or not the shells were intentionally drilled by humans, the authors actually state that few if any of the shells bear clear traces of human-made perforation. However, the representation of shells bearing holes departs markedly from their natural occurrences. In other words, the size of the shells found at Los Aviones and Anton indicates that they are not similar to a naturally occurring shell assemblage, hence that they were likely selected by humans. If they were selected by humans, and they were already perforated, there was no need to re-perforate them to use them as ornaments. They conclude (Zilhao et al. 2010: 4) "that naturally perforated marine shells were extensively used at the time of the emergence of the European MP and African MP/MSA traditions of body decoraton and continued to be very much in fashion even as the repertoire of ornament types expanded to include more elaborated items."

The use of naturally perforated shells as ornaments is something I've observed in my own research on southern Italian assemblages that contain piece of tubular Dentalium shells that were likely worn as ornaments.

Anne Gilbert said...

Julien, Maju, and all:

There are some pretty important things to bear in mind here. First of all, this latest find of colored shells, and materials associated with making pigments, is, as Julien pointed out, not the only instance of such materials being found in a Neandertal context. Second, what was used probably varied from place to place and depended on whatever was reasonably easily available. Also, even if the shells had holes drilled in them by some organism other than Neandertals, if Neandertals collected them, someone would surely have noticed and said to themselves, "Hey, there's a hole in this shell! Maybe I can put it on a thong and impress my girlfriend/boyfriend" or whatever. And, from that, they might even have figured out how to drill holes themselves. You can't just assume that only "modern" humans had the brains and the smarts to do this, and if, now that Zilhão and his team have discovered these shells, subsequent workers keep their eyes out for more such things, who knows what might turn up in a Neandertal context? It really seems to me that some people are quite resistant to the notion that Neandertals could possibly have been our "equals" in any way.
Anne G

OutEast said...

Anne G
It really seems to me that some people are quite resistant to the notion that Neandertals could possibly have been our "equals" in any way.

There may be some of that. My sense, though, is that most of those who are raising objections are simply being cautious - nervous of the possibility that this is yet another example of a limited find being over-interpreted out of a desire for revelation. And widespread media reporting of this specific find as evidence that Neanderthals used makeup (!) likely doesn't help.

Anne Gilbert said...


It is true that some activities attributed to Neandertals amy not be the activities they did. It is also true that some of these things aren't what they appear to be. But still, up until recently, at least, there has been considerable resistance to expansion of the idea of what Neandertals were or were not capable of. For example, take burials. It is true that some Neandertals fossils are where they are due to accidents, not deliberate burials. But there are enough deliberate burials to substantiate the practice. For example, the famous(or infamous) La Chapelle aux Saintes fossil was deliberately buried(there is a photograph and I've seen it). IMO(but I'll let professionals decide on this, since I'm only a Starving Writer), when archaeologists and others who work with prehistoric humans keep finding material that could be used to make paints or colors, and not only that, but finding traces of the colors on various objects, in a Neandertal context, it tends to suggest that the people in those contexts used them for various purposes, including decorative ones! Though there are not many of these finds, not as many, at least, as later, "modern" human ones, there are, again, enough of them, to suggest thatsomething more than maybe "utilitarian" was going on.

Julien Riel-Salvatore said...

OutEast -
you're certainly right in raising the issue of needing to be careful not to extrapolate too much from individual finds, especially against the backdrop of sensationalistic science reporting. That said, we also have to be willing to start connecting distinct data points when they start being found in more than one location. This is why I think that a link to the Pech de l'Aze manganese pigments is quite important in this discussion, and why I remain somewhat more circumspect about ornament use so far. Should more evidence of it be unearthed (literally!), then the case for Neanderthal ornamentation becomes that much more convincing.

Maju said...

I really have absolutely no issue with Neanderthals using make up or body paint or placing flowers at their burials or whatever. I understand that Neanderthals were intelligent and probably sensible people as ourselves. My issue is with two things:

1. The perforation of the shells, generally considered a Sapiens-specific trait, already answered by Julien as likely not man-made.

2. The date: why all Neanderthal signs of modern behavior appear always at a very late date, precisely when they must have been in contact with H. sapiens. I mean, Neanderthals existed in Europe since c. 200,000 BP but this finding and others like Chatelperronian culture happen not just a few milennia before their extinction only but also at a time when they must had already contacted our species quite intensely. Of course you could argue that it was a two sided interaction that also enriched the H. sapiens but still the issue is over the table.

Julien Riel-Salvatore said...

That's a good point. The usual answer to this is that much of what people consider archaeological evidence of 'modern' behavior is linked relatively directly to increases in population densities. For one thing, when there's more people, subsistence resources are under more stress and this encourages the systematic incorporation of previously low-ranked resources (e.g., shellfish, birds, rabbits) in the diet, although many of those were likely exploited opportunistically previously. For another, when there's more people on the landscape, there's a higher likelihood of encountering people with whom you don't have a close personal familiarity. This increases the potential for social friction and ornamentation often emerges as a way of conveying social information about identity and group membership at a distance or without the need for direct, involved interaction.

Given the shallower history of human occupation in Eurasia relative to say Africa and southern Asia, population densities likely remained much lower than in those other regions for much longer. If you factor in population history processes (e.g., migration) that might have suddenly increased population densities, you have a situation where the brusque emergence of 'modern' behavior makes sense from an evolutionary ecological standpoint at least.

An interesting facet of the European situation is that once the hallmarks of modern behavior emerge, they become 'fixed' in the behavioral repertoire of human groups. This is in stark contrast to the situation in, say, Africa, where you seem to have an 'on again, off again' situation where modern behavior emerges repeatedly but fleetingly in various parts of the continent as early as 170kya, but flickers off when population densities seem to decrease below a certain threshold.

Maju said...

I'm aware of that situation you mention (Powell'09). However the population densities in Europe before the Late UP were surely quite low, for both Neanderthals and Sapiens (I discussed it here).

I am also aware that the so-called "modern behavior" is something very tricky to measure. Many refined behaviors simply leave no trace, like perishable decorations or music and dance, or is at least extremely difficult to detect. The reality of archaeology in Europe and other regions also varies a lot and this unavoidably biases our understanding.

But I have also considered that maybe is not just numbers what trigger cultural evolution as it may be "cosmopolitanism", i.e. the interaction between different peoples, perspectives and traditions. Of course, this will be favored by mere raw numbers but there may be more subtle twists than just that numerical consideration.

Anne Gilbert said...

I guess I'm with Dr. Riel-Salvatore here, in that once you start finding bits and pieces of something you perhaps didn't expect to find(e.g. the manganese "crayons" at Pech de l'Aze, and the Cueva Antón shells with traces of orange colored "paint" of some kind(and I think there are other places, as well) you might want to consider "connecting the dots". People can argue as much as they want as thwhy Neandertals were using the shells for paint, or how they were using them, but the fact seens to be that they were (probably) using these things forsomething. I also agree with Dr. Riel-Salvatore that whenever some unsual artifact is found in an archaeological context one doesn't expect it to be in, caution in interpretation is necessary. And because the evidence of "paint" in Neandertal contexts is as yet rather thin, I can understand why some people are cautious(including Dr. Riel-Salvatore). However, it is also my considered opinion, based on a lot of reading, that some of this caution stems, not from a quite natural archaelogical tendency not to rush in and "interpret" things, but from an underlying resistance to attributing anything to Neandertals, that is usually considered "modern" behavor. It seems that some people want to put Neandertals in the "different" box and keep them there, rather than understanding that by the time there were any Neandertals, human behavior most likely covered a broad range that all contemporary human groups shared, at least to some degree, the expression of which most probably varied by place and circumstance. And probably degree of population size, as Dr. Riel-Salvatore seems to be suggesting.

Julien Riel-Salvatore said...

Maju -
The study by Powell et al. (2009) that you mention is a very good one and is very relevant to the topic at hand. It seems pretty clear that forager population in Late Pleistocene Eurasia were rather low and, in other words, that people we spread very thinly on the landscape, more so probably than many ethnographically documented hunter-gatherer groups.

'Cosmopolitanism', as you call it, is not an unrealistic idea in this context, especially since drift-like processes are likely to have operated more markedly (from an archaeological standpoint anyway) on low-density forager groups. However, low population densities also would encourage a great deal of conservatism in behavioral adaptations, since the likelihood of being able to depend on other people in times of crisis would have been concomitantly much lower. This would have selected for polyvalent, very stable cultural adaptations, which is how the Mousterian is often depicted or conceptualized (even though I think this glosses over much of its internal variability, but that's a topic for another post).

That said, an immigration of people into Europe would have effectively raised the population density background of both the local Neanderthals and the arriving modern humans, at least if they interacted. That means that the effective density of both population could have been higher at that time than what is often thought. This means that people would have had more 'others' to interact with and exchange ideas with. In any case, I think a certain population density threshold remains a prerequisite for any of these processes to begin unfolding, 'cosmopolitanism' included.

Julien Riel-Salvatore said...

Anne -
it is definitely important, I'd even say essential, to keep an open mind when dealing with the behavior of all hominins documented during the Late Pleistocene. That said, we also must be realistic about what the evidence (and density thereof) actually says about Neanderthal behavior. There are some real differences between the archaeological record of some Neanderthals and that of some modern humans. However, it's also unrealistic to think of Neanderthals (and modern humans!) as having been behaviorally uniform over their entire range, which they certainly weren't. This diversity is, to me, an important dimension of why much Neanderthal behavior would likely be categorized as 'modern' if it weren't tainted (so to speak) by its association to Neanderthal fossil remains or chronology. There is something to say for working from both the starting assumption that Neanderthals were fundamentally unlike modern humans or that the two were fundamentally different. The art is in balancing these two assumptions to reach interpretations that are as credible as possible!

Anne Gilbert said...


Both your replies on "cosmopolitanism" and population densities, and your thoughtful answer to my post re "differences" are very much worth thinking about, and I thank you for that. There is always something to learn from exchanges like this, even if the exchangers might end up agreeing to disagree. I am not necessarily doing this. For one thing, I think it's fairly obvious that Neandertals were "different" in some ways -- the anatomical differences are pretty obvious. And "behavioral" differences among Neandertals(and "moderns") over the vast areas of space they both occupied, when they coexisted, probably differed as well. But how much? And under what circumstances? I don't have the answer to this; I'm not a "professional", but it seems to me that the real problem here is, a behavioral range existed, where, in some cases, the behavioral responses of Neandertals and "moderns" were very, very similar, and in other cases, maybe not so similar. At this point, I think we can only guess as to why, and this is where the disagreements seem to come in. I tend to think that N's and AMH were much more similar than is often supposed, and I tend to think that if you start from the point of their being "different" there is a tendency, at least among some, to reify that "difference" without considering the possibilities you have suggested. But that, perhaps, is another story.

Maju said...

Just to say that my idea of "cosmopolitanism" (just an idea I have been chewing on recently) means that in-group interactions reinforce conservatism and inter-group ones weaken it by "expanding horizons". Hence mere numbers alone, specially if they are the product of a single population growing fast, would not be sufficient to explain cultural innovation.

Also, in order to reinforce my perception of small European populations before the Magdalenian expansion, I would like to refer to Atkinson-2007, which is a genetics paper that tries to estimate effective population sizes in the various world regions in the past. At least for Europe it is coincident with the archaeology-based estimates of Boucqet-Appel.

If so, notice that South Asia specially, but also Tropical Africa and East Asia show large populations that do not seem to decay meaningfully, yet they do not show some of the innovative cultural traits of Europe. They may have others instead (for example recently microlithism was claimed as a South Asian invention).

Anne: rather than "modern behavior", which is a most tricky term, I'd speak of symbolic behavior, which Neanderthals no doubt displayed at some sites (and H. sapiens did not at many others, at least if we have to believe the limited info that archaeology can provide in this aspect). Probably most symbolic behavior simply did not leave traces that we can detect.

My interest anyhow was partly more in discerning the maybe subtle differences within this symbolic behavior (artificial perforations, for example) and also in why of the timeline of this behavior among Neanderthals (as among Sapiens is documented to much earlier dates).

Anne Gilbert said...


At some sites, though apparently not at Cueva Antón, Neandertals apparently did drill holes in things like wolf teeth, to make pendants. This seems to have been the case in Grotte du Renne, the "Chatelperronian" site. I don't recall that they colored them in any way, but these perforations were deliberate. Whether any of this constitutes "symbolism", I'll leave for the experts, but IMO it constitutes *something*.
Anne G

onix said...

only rather recently shell beads were found in northafrica that were amazingly old, and had traces of pigment. so perhaps it matters if people start looking (otoh i am rather secure even early on shell finds in old layers were appreciated).
however i have a remark, i don't think of holes in (these) shells as merely an indication of ornamental use, but more like an indication of portability. since i have to go with the impressions from the researchers, they were more probably containers of some kind then beads. to me, containers of any kind suggest female specific technology before male specific. i know that is quite valid for reed, cloths, purses, bags, shabbards, i think it goes for pre monetarian pottery (easy check fingerprints) and stays relevant after. the task of carrying and storing water..

otoh vessels, rucksacks shipbuilding and other (transport related?) forms of emballage have been somewhat exclusively male, tho i think that packing the sledge was usually a female task in north american society's.
actually roughly i would guess any post monetarian(/metal) invention even for emballage has been in male hands, for example i don't know a single indication glassworking has been a female task, and the industry has no association with woman.