Herodotus Returns

Neanderthal shells suggest symbolic thinking
January 9, 2010, 10:14 am
Filed under: Pre-history | Tags: , ,

Recent studies of 50,000-year-old shells suggest that Neanderthals, contrary to previous belief, were capable of symbolic thinking. If the evidence presented in this study holds, it will completely change the way we think of cognitive evolution. The ability to associate, to affix meaning to an object, to recognize and create symbols – these were apparently what made us different from Neanderthals. They were, in essence, what made us human. This study may force us to redefine our humanity.

Neanderthals were different from you and me, the thinking goes, because they were cognitively inferior. For one thing, they appeared to be incapable of symbolic thinking, of using something to represent something else.

Some humans in Africa, for example, adorned their bodies with stained seashells more than 100,000 years ago. To them, a shell wasn’t just a shell, but a way to signify individuality. But evidence of similar behavior by Neanderthals has been discounted.

Now, though, archeologists working in the Murcia region of southeastern Spain report in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they have found solid signs that Neanderthals were using seashells in a decorative and symbolic way.

João Zilhão of the University of Bristol in England and colleagues studied shells found in two caves far from the shoreline and dating from about 50,000 years ago, 10,000 years before modern humans showed up in Europe.

More on the Neanderthal symbolic thinking study from the New York Times.


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[…] Zilhão, the archaeologist who two weeks ago found painted sea shells at a Neanderthal site in France has published a paper regarding the end point of the Neanderthal people. Professor Zilhao and […]

Pingback by Neanderthals died out 37,000 years ago « Herodotus Returns

[…] a big year for Neanderthal public relations. First we found out that 50,000 years ago they were wearing makeup and jewelry. Next, the Neanderthal Genome Project told us that they were mating with Homo sapiens. Neanderthals […]

Pingback by Neanderthal bedroom discovered in Spain « Herodotus Returns

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