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.