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Surprising Science

Clear Eye on the Cave Guy

About 50,000 years ago, on the Mediterranean coast of what is now Spain, somebody (or bodies) was keeping carefully ground-up pigments–red, yellow, orange and shiny black–in neatly pierced seashells. That’s evidence, says this paper, that these people wore cosmetics, which means it’s evidence of minds much like our own. Which is striking, because these people weren’t human.

Not strictly human, anyway. The make-up artists were Neandertals, of the species Homo neandertalensis. It seems some members of our own species, Homo sapiens sapiens, were also using cosmetics and wearing shell jewelry in the Middle Stone Age (and in one African find, even earlier). But the new paper, published by João Zilhão of the University of Bristol and his colleagues last Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the first to find face-painting among Neandertals.

That’s impressive for a species often represented as a bunch of dimwitted brutes who let themselves be outsmarted-to-death by our kind. Painting your face red, after all, is a complex feat of symbolic thought and social awareness. Red You and Regular You represent different persons, even though you remain yourself no matter which face you show. You have to keep all that straight, and so does everyone else in your posse (otherwise Red You would seem to be a stranger).

The mind of a Homo sapiens learns to do all this early in life. So most of us understand and enjoy make-up, costumes, uniforms and the like. Toddlers and dogs can’t cope, though, which is why they can be freaked by seeing Dad in a Halloween costume, or even just a helmet.

If the PNAS paper’s right, Neandertals developed this same symbolic sophistication, but without a Homo sapiens brain. (Theirs were different from ours in many ways.) Which means that whatever caused the appearance of “modern” minds in the Middle Pleistocene, it can’t have been the anatomy of the “modern” brain.

That claim is part of an important argument among paleontologists, about the theory that modern human traits are purely physiological–that we use symbols, play music and tell stories only because of the structure of our brains. If other kinds of brains also reached our kind of mental complexity, though, then the cause must be something else that was common to both Homo sapiens and his Homo Neandertalensis cousins: Perhaps a particular ecosystem, or a previously unknown level of population density and social organization. The human past looks quite different if you stop assuming that anatomy is destiny.


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