Saturday, April 23, 2011


A COMMENT ON “HEAVY BROWS, HIGH ART”, an article by Charles Q. Choi in the March 2010 issue of Scientific American magazine.

Painted scallop shell, Spain. From Scientific American,
March, 2010 issue, written by Charles Q. Choi,
photo by João Zilhão, University of Bristol.

One fascinating question in the study of rock art in Europe and the Middle East involves the great span of time that these areas were occupied by Homo neandertalensis, who left traces of their material culture, burials, and habitation, but no commonly recognized rock art panels or images. In his book The Mind In The Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art, David Lewis-Williams (2002) ambitiously tackled that question. In questioning the differences between Neandertal and Homo sapiens he looks at the remains left by our sapiens ancestors – “instances of material culture, body adornment and burial were both associated with the expression and construction of hierarchical, or at least differentiated, society that was not simply based on age, sex, and physical strength. For the Neanderthals, this kind of society was – literally – unthinkable.” We have long known the Neandertal material culture as Mousterian, discovered in the earlier layers of many habitation sites in their area of occupation. Archaeologists have also discovered Neandertal burials, some with indications of purposeful ceremonial components. We now know of manufactured items of body adornment from Neandertal deposits, apparently satisfying Lewis-William’s third criteria.

Archaeologists from the University of Bristol in England have found 50,000-year-old jewelry at two caves in southeastern Spain, 10,000 years before modern humans entered Europe. An article in the March 2010 Scientific American written by Charles Q. Choi, reports that archaeologist João Zilhão and his colleagues discovered in Cueva (Cave) Antón 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, found 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.

Indeed, in the same article “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.”

We would do well to remember that in our modern culture we do classify the design and creation of jewelry as an art form. While this report does not connect Neandertal abilities and activities with the production of cave art, it is certainly direct evidence that speaks to their abilities and interests. If the Neandertals of southeastern Spain could collect or trade for these scallop shells, manufacture the paint from goethite and hematite, paint the shells, string them on a cord of their manufacture, and wear them for personal adornment, can anyone seriously believe that they could not have painted on cave walls the images of animals from their environment and symbols from their imaginations? We may yet hope for the eventual discovery of rock art created by the Neandertal people. Or conversely, ironically, we may already have it but because of cultural bias simply not have recognized it and attributed it to them.

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