Newly discovered painted scallops and cockleshells in Spain are the first hard evidence that Neandertals made jewelry. These findings suggest humanity’s closest extinct relatives might have been capable of symbolism after all.

Body ornaments made of painted and pierced seashells dating back 70,000 to 120,000 years have been found in Africa and the Near East for decades, and they serve as signs of symbolic thought among the earliest modern humans. The absence of similar finds in Europe at that time, when it was Neandertal territory, has supported the notion that our early relatives lacked symbolism, a potential sign of mental inferiority that might help explain why Homo sapiens eventually replaced them. Although hints of Neandertal art and jewelry have cropped up, such as pierced and grooved animal-tooth pendants, they have often been shrugged off as artifacts mixed in from modern humans or as imitation without understanding.

Now archaeologist João Zilhão of the University of Bristol in England and his colleagues have found 50,000-year-old jewelry at two caves in southeastern Spain, 10,000 years before modern humans entered Europe. Cueva (Cave) Antón contained a pierced king scallop shell painted with orange pigment made of yellow goe­thite and red hematite collected some five kilometers from the site. Among material unearthed at Cueva de los Aviones, alongside quartz and flint artifacts, were two pierced cockleshells that were painted with traces of red hematite. No dyes were found on food shells or stone tools, suggesting the jewelry was not just painted
at random.

These discoveries, in combination with earlier artifacts, indicate that “Neandertals had the same capabilities for symbolism, imagination and creativity as modern humans,” Zilhão says. Anthropologist Erik Trinkaus of Washington University in St. Louis, who did not take part in this study, hopes that the finds “will start to bury the idea that’s been around for 100 years—that Neandertals died out because they were stupid.” The jewelry also implies that Neandertals might have taught our ancestors how to paint—or vice versa. Zilhão and his team offered details online January 11 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.