Neanderthals did not make jewelry after all

October 19, 2010, Oxford University

Neanderthals may have made jewelry after all
Tools previously thought to have been fashioned by later Neanderthals
( -- The theory that later Neanderthals might have been sufficiently advanced to fashion jewellery and tools similar to those of incoming modern humans has suffered a setback. A new radiocarbon dating study, led by Oxford University, has found that an archaeological site that uniquely links Neanderthal remains to sophisticated tools and jewellery may be partially mixed.

The study, published in the early online version of the journal PNAS, suggests that the position of key finds in the archaeological layers of the Grotte du Renne at Arcy-sur-Cure in France may not be trustworthy. The research team, from the UK and France, dated material from the site and discovered their radiocarbon ages were extremely variable and did not correspond with the expected sequence indicated by the excavated archaeological layers. The Grotte du Renne has 15 archaeological layers, covering a depth of about four metres spanning periods from the Mousterian to the Gravettian periods.

For decades scholars have debated the extent of cognitive and behavioral development in Neanderthals before they disappeared from Europe about 30,000 years ago. Neanderthals are the most recent, extinct modern human relative. We have a from around 700,000-800,000 years ago and recent work in decoding the Neanderthal shows we share between one to four per cent of their DNA.

One pivotal period is around 35,000-40,000 years ago when the earliest dispersed into Western Europe. Finds made in the 1950s and 1960s at the Grotte du Renne site have provided persuasive evidence to suggest either that Neanderthals developed a more modern type of behaviour before modern human dispersal, developing their own complex ornaments and tools, or that they mimicked the behavior of the modern humans that they encountered after their arrival. Over the years the site has yielded 29 Neanderthal teeth and a piece of ear bone from a Neanderthal skull in the same archaeological levels as rings made of ivory, awls, bone points, pierced animal teeth, shell and ivory pendants. The finds were recovered from three archaeological levels (VII, IX, X) associated with the Châtelperronian industry, a tool culture thought to have evolved from the earlier Neanderthal, Mousterian industry.

For this study, researchers from the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit analysed 59 remains of cut-marked bones, horse teeth smashed by humans, awls, ornaments fashioned from animal teeth and mammoth ivory tusks from six key archaeological levels of the site. They included the three Châtelperronian levels (VIII, IX and X) and the Aurignacian level with material derived from modern humans in level VII. Thirty-one new radiocarbon dates were obtained: the oldest material in the Aurignacian level was dated at around 35,000 years ago, but when the researchers dated materials from the lower Châtelperronian levels they discovered many of the ages were hugely variable, with some much younger and several at about the same age as dates from the Aurignacian level. The most serious chronological problems were in the oldest part of the Châtelperronian layer (X) where more than a third of the radiocarbon ages were outside the ranges expected.

Lead author Dr Thomas Higham, Deputy Director of the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, said: ‘Our results confirm that material has moved up and down and is out of sequence in the Châtelperronian levels. We think that there has probably been some physical disturbance which has disrupted the proper sequence of the layers. This means that any chronological interpretation from this site should be viewed with extreme caution.

‘Our study raises questions about the link between Neanderthals and the tools and jewellery found in the Châtelperronian levels. This site is one of only two in the French Palaeolithic that seems to show a link between ornaments and Neanderthal remains. This has previously been interpreted as indicating that were not intellectually inferior to modern people but possessed advanced cognition and behaviour. Our work says there is a big question mark over whether this link exists.’

Explore further: Scientists redate Neanderthal fossils

Related Stories

Scientists redate Neanderthal fossils

January 5, 2006

Scientists say two Neanderthal fossils excavated from Vindija Cave in Croatia in 1998 may be 3,000-4,000 years older than originally thought.

New research suggests Neanderthals weren't stupid

January 11, 2010

( -- Neanderthals used makeup and jewellery challenging the idea that they were cognitively inferior to early modern humans, according to research published in the Proceedings in the National Academy of Sciences ...

How modern were European Neandertals?

August 25, 2006

Neandertals were much more like modern humans than had been previously thought, according to a re-examination of finds from one of the most famous palaeolithic sites in Europe by Bristol University archaeologist, Professor ...

Neanderthals more advanced than previously thought

September 21, 2010

For decades scientists believed Neanderthals developed `modern' tools and ornaments solely through contact with Homo sapiens, but new research from the University of Colorado Denver now shows these sturdy ancients could adapt, ...

Recommended for you

Meteorite source in asteroid belt not a single debris field

February 17, 2019

A new study published online in Meteoritics and Planetary Science finds that our most common meteorites, those known as L chondrites, come from at least two different debris fields in the asteroid belt. The belt contains ...

Diagnosing 'art acne' in Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings

February 17, 2019

Even Georgia O'Keeffe noticed the pin-sized blisters bubbling on the surface of her paintings. For decades, conservationists and scholars assumed these tiny protrusions were grains of sand, kicked up from the New Mexico desert ...

Archaeologists discover Incan tomb in Peru

February 16, 2019

Peruvian archaeologists discovered an Incan tomb in the north of the country where an elite member of the pre-Columbian empire was buried, one of the investigators announced Friday.

Where is the universe hiding its missing mass?

February 15, 2019

Astronomers have spent decades looking for something that sounds like it would be hard to miss: about a third of the "normal" matter in the Universe. New results from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory may have helped them ...

What rising seas mean for local economies

February 15, 2019

Impacts from climate change are not always easy to see. But for many local businesses in coastal communities across the United States, the evidence is right outside their doors—or in their parking lots.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

4 / 5 (4) Oct 19, 2010
Yeah, that DNA figure means we're more closely related to asparagus than Neanderthals. Someone mistyped.
5 / 5 (6) Oct 19, 2010
I think they meant that humans have about 1-4% of Neanderthal specific gene sequences encoded in our DNA, not that our DNA is 1-4% similar. That wouldn't make sense. because our DNA is nearly identical to Neanderthal DNA if you're comparing that percent measurement (which is silly, because it doesn't tell you very much).
5 / 5 (7) Oct 19, 2010
Our DNA contains 1-4% of sequences unique to Neanderthals indicating that they may have interbred with humans. Our DNA, however, is 99.7% identical to theirs.
3.7 / 5 (3) Oct 20, 2010
couldn't it be that they were too smart to wear jewelry? i mean really? is that a sign of advanced thinking or some sort of disorder? hanging bits of rock and bone from body parts maybe didn't occur to them..

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.