New Research Suggests Neanderthals Were Capable of Symbolic


by Helen Zhang, age 12

For a long time scientists believed that Neanderthals were incapable of symbolic thinking. But new research suggests that seashells were used by these early humans for representative reasons.

Symbolic thinking refers to the ability to interpret signs or symbols which stand for something else.

Neanderthals are an extinct human ancestor who lived during the Stone Age. Joãn Zilhão, from The University of Bristol in England has discovered evidence that suggests Neanderthals identified themselves as individuals through decoration. He and his colleagues inspected shells found in two caves that dated back 50,000 years, long before modern humans appeared.

Holes were found in cockle and scallop shells that were likely collected by Neanderthals. Since holes were around the same size for each shell, it appears the Neanderthals picked shells that were easy to string together like a necklace.

Many of these cockle and scallop shells also had color pigments on them, suggesting that long ago they were painted. One of these shells looked as if it had been painted to match its interior coloring. A different shell, from a thorny oyster, had a material in it that may have been used for body paint.

Studies show that in early human societies, objects like shells were commonly used as symbolic decorations. “They are like socially recognizable identity cards, used to tell other people who you are,” says Dr. Zilhão.

There is still much to learn about Neanderthals. Researchers think this discovery brings us one step closer to unveiling the mysteries of our ancestors.

[Source: The New York Times]