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 years, and serve as evidence of symbolic thought among the earliest modern humans (Homo sapiens). The absence of similar finds in Europe at that time, when it was Neandertal territory, has supported the notion that they lacked symbolism, a potential sign of mental inferiority that might help explain why modern humans eventually replaced them.

Although hints of Neandertal art and jewelry have cropped up in recent years, such as pierced and grooved animal-tooth pendants or a decorated limestone slab on the grave of a child, these have often been shrugged off as artifacts mixed in from modern humans, imitation without understanding, or ambiguous in nature. Now archaeologist João Zilhão at the University of Bristol in England and his colleagues have found 50,000-year-old jewelry at two caves in southeastern Spain, art dating back 10,000 years before the fossil record reveals evidence of modern humans entering Europe.

At the Cueva (Cave) Antón, the scientists unearthed a pierced king scallop shell (Pecten maximus) painted with orange pigment made of yellow goethite and red hematite collected some five kilometers from that site. In material collected from the Cueva de los Aviones, alongside quartz and flint artifacts were bones from horses, deer, ibex, rabbits and tortoises as well as seashells from edible cockles (Glycymeris insubrica), mussels, limpets and snails; the researchers also discovered two pierced dog-cockleshells painted with traces of red hematite pigment. No dyes were found on the food shells or stone tools, suggesting the jewelry was not just painted at random.

In addition, Zilhão and his colleagues saw an orange pigment–coated horse bone at Aviones that might have served as a pin to prepare or apply mineral dyes or to pierce painted hides as well as three thorny oyster (Spondylus gaederopus) shells that might have served as paint cups, holding as they did residues of hematite, charcoal, dolomite and pyrite. The researchers also came across lumps of red and yellow pigments there that had to have come from afield, such as the area of La Unión three to five kilometers to the northwest, which has served as a gold and silver mining district since antiquity.

These discoveries, in combination with earlier findings hinting at Neandertal ornaments and funerary practices, suggest "Neandertals had the same capabilities for symbolism, imagination and creativity as modern humans," Zilhão says. Anthropologist Erik Trinkaus at Washington University in Saint Louis, who did not take part in this study, notes, "I'm hoping that this will start to bury the idea that's been around for 100 years—that Neandertals died out because they were stupid."

The rarity of such finds, however, thus far might still suggest to some that Neandertals were not great minds, "the number of sites that have these pigmented shells from either Neandertals or modern humans is something that you can count on the fingers of one hand," Trinkaus says. "These finds are very thin on the landscape."

Instead of Neandertals and modern humans developing jewelry independently, two intriguing possibilities this discovery raises are that Neandertals taught our ancestors art—or vice versa.

"I have argued that the archaeological culture associated with Europe's earliest modern humans, the Proto-Aurignacian, features a mix of ornaments of different traditions: small, basket-shaped beads similar to those known from South Africa since about 75,000 years ago, likely to have been used as parts of composite beadworks, and pierced animal teeth, likely to have been used as isolated pendants," Zilhão says.

Although tooth pendants are entirely unknown in the modern humans of Africa and the Near East prior to their dispersal into Europe, Zilhão adds they are precisely the kinds of ornaments linked with the Châtelperronian industry in France during the upper Paleolithic period of the Stone Age, which is linked with the Neandertals. "This mix indicates a significant level of cultural exchange at the time of contact, and the persistence in early modern human cultures of Europe of items and traditions of Neandertal origin," he says.

The scientists are set to detail their findings online January 11 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.