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Human Ancestors May Have Had Capacity for Symbolic Thought 600,000 Years Ago



(p. D1) On Thursday [February 22, 2018], a team of researchers offered compelling evidence that Neanderthals bore one of the chief hallmarks of mental sophistication: they could paint cave art. That talent suggests that Neanderthals could think in symbols and may have achieved other milestones not preserved in the fossil record.

"When you have symbols, then you have language," said João Zilhão, an archaeologist at the University of Barcelona and co-author of the new study.


. . .


(p. D6) But a second study, which Dr. Zilhão and his colleagues published Thursday [February 22, 2018], in the journal Science Advances, hints that Neanderthals might well have been painting long before 64,000 years ago.

The scientists traveled to a cave on the coast of Spain where Dr. Zilhão had earlier discovered shells that had been drilled with holes and painted with ocher.


. . .


He and his colleagues discovered a layer of flowstone sitting atop the rock where they had found the shell jewelry. That flowstone turned out to be about 115,000 years old.


. . .


The colored, pierced shells themselves are probably not much older than that. Up until about 118,000 years ago, the cave was flooded, thanks to higher sea levels.

That finding provides strong evidence that the shells were made by Neanderthals. They were definitely living in Spain 115,000 years ago, while modern humans would not arrive in Europe for another 70,000 years.

The two new studies don't just indicate that Neanderthals could make cave art and jewelry. They also establish that Neanderthals were making these things long before modern humans -- a blow to the idea that they simply copied their cousins.

The earliest known cave paintings made by modern humans are only about 40,000 years old, while Neanderthal cave art is at least 24,000 years older. The oldest known shell jewelry made by modern humans is about 70,000 years old, but Neanderthals were making it 45,000 years before then.

"These results imply that Neanderthals were not apart from these developments," said Dr. Zilhão. "For all practical purposes, they were modern humans, too."

The new studies raise another intriguing possibility, said Clive Finlayson, director of the Gibraltar Museum: that the capacity for symbolic thought was already present 600,000 years ago in the ancestors of both Neanderthals and modern humans.

He agreed with Dr. Zilhão that the new study supports the idea that Neanderthals used language. In addition to the evidence of symbolic thought, researchers have also found that the inner ears of Neanderthals were tuned to the frequencies of speech, much like our own.

"We don't know how they spoke or what they said," said Dr. Finlayson. "But they had the ability of speech."

The cave paintings that Dr. Pike and his colleagues have dated are generally abstract. There's no evidence so far that Neanderthals painted images of lions and other animals, as modern humans did thousands of years later.

But Dr. Pike doesn't think a lack of animal imagery marks a mental deficiency in Neanderthals. It could simply reflect a cultural preference.'



For the full story, see:

Zimmer, Carl. "MATTER; The Neanderthal, the Artist." The New York Times (Tuesday, February 27, 2018): D1 & D6.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date FEB. 22, 2018, and has the title "MATTER; Neanderthals, the World's First Misunderstood Artists.")


The first article mentioned above and co-authored by Zilhão, is:


Hoffmann, D. L., C. D. Standish, M. García-Diez, P. B. Pettitt, J. A. Milton, J. Zilhão, J. J. Alcolea-González, P. Cantalejo-Duarte, H. Collado, R. de Balbín, M. Lorblanchet, J. Ramos-Muñoz, G. Ch Weniger, and A. W. G. Pike. "U-Th Dating of Carbonate Crusts Reveals Neandertal Origin of Iberian Cave Art." Science 359, no. 6378 (Feb. 23, 2018): 912-915.



The second article mentioned above and co-authored by Zilhão, is:

Hoffmann, Dirk L., Diego E. Angelucci, Valentín Villaverde, Josefina Zapata, and João Zilhão. "Symbolic Use of Marine Shells and Mineral Pigments by Iberian Neandertals 115,000 Years Ago." Science Advances 4, no. 2 (Feb. 22, 2018): 1-6.






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