'The shells were coated with residues of mixed pigments'

A team led by Professor Joao Zilhao from Bristol University working at two sites in Murcia, Spain, have found evidence of shells containing pigment residue dating to 50,000 years ago on a Neanderthal site. This includes lumps of a yellow pigment, red powder mixed with reflective black material, and the shells themselves which were coated with a mixture of pigment residues.

Unfortunately I can’t find the ‘report’ to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) that the BBC refer to in their article. It’s a shame as I’d like to see that actual analysis of the pigments, particularly the reflective black material, as I do wonder if it’s the iron oxide hematite. Almost all pigments that survive archaeologically are minerals, and both iron and copper bearing minerals appear to have been first exploited as pigments and jewelery before being smelted into metals. Consequently it’s always interesting for archaeometallurgists to see what minerals were being used, where, and how early!

However the report looks like this is another good point on the side of the “Neanderthals weren’t just grunting idiots” argument. To be honest I think that argument was won a while back, but it’s good to drive the nails into the coffin (just check out the PNAS’ articles on neanderthals here). And I’m sure anthropologists (because although the digging might be archaeology, the intellectual realm is really anthropology) get really fed up with the general opinion that Neanderthal=dumbass half-monkey.

Professor Joao Zilhao told BBC News. “The use of these complex recipes is new. It’s more than body painting.”

What more means exactly the report doesn’t say, but I think the idea they’re getting at is that these guys are thinking conceptually, using the paint to symbolize something other than just pretty colours. Of course, that’s an extrapolation from the actual evidence, but it’s a cute idea. Though I did wonder what the evidence was that the pigments were for body paint. Maybe they were for painting something else? Walls, caves, burials, furniture, clothing, animals? That would be even more exciting. You can weave a lot of interesting stories, for instance if you start to think about why they were painting – for war, for religion, for death? Unfortunately it all does rather come down to guess work and story-telling – though I’m sure the anthropologists wouldn’t put it that way!

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