For the past two decades archaeologist João Zilhão of the University of Bristol in England has been studying our closest cousins, the Neandertals, who occupied Eurasia for more than 200,000 years before mysteriously disappearing some 28,000 years ago. Experts in this field have long debated just how similar Neandertal cognition was to our own. Occupying center stage in this controversy are a handful of Neandertal sites that contain cultural remains indicative of symbol use—including jewelry—a defining element of modern human behavior. Zilhão and others argue that Neandertals invented these symbolic traditions on their own, before anatomically modern humans arrived in Europe around 40,000 years ago. Critics, however, believe the items originated with moderns.
But this past January, in a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, Zilhão and his colleagues reported on finds that could settle the dispute: pigment-stained seashells from two sites in Spain dated to nearly 50,000 years ago—10,000 years before anatomically modern humans made their way to Europe. Zilhão recently discussed the implications of his team’s new discoveries with Scientific American staff editor Kate Wong. An edited version of their conversation follows.