Neandertal Jewelry

Photo by Dr. Marian Vanharen.

New, high-tech reexamination of tiny beads and bones from a cave in France now shows that these 42,000 year old objects were likely made by Neandertals.

The beads are not new to science. They were found decades ago in a cave
once occupied by Neandertals and by the more modern humans who were entering Western Europe at just this time. Did the Neandertals make the beads, or the newcomers? Or were the two communities interacting, genetically and culturally, and were these beads the product of a fusion culture?

Until just recently, the technical tools to answer these questions did not exist. Recently, however, the field of paleoproteomics has burst on the scene. By extracting and analyzing tiny ancient proteins from bones, it is possible to answer questions like Neandertal or modern. Many other key questions may also be answered by these new techniques.

This report fills out even more the scientific reassessment of Neandertals. They were not the primitive brutes we once took them to be. But the report also adds tantalizing hints to the key time of transition, when Neandertals and the more modern newcomers overlapped in various places all across Eurasia. The French cave (Grotte du Renne) where these beads were found may have been a site of interaction. We know that elsewhere in Europe (Romania), interbreeding was occurring at about this time. Whether it was happening in the region around Grotte du Renne is still a question. But the article suggests that this is a time of transition in population and in culture.

Neandertals figure prominently in The End of Adam. Included, for example, is the 2015 report about new techniques that show that eagle talon beads found long ago in Croatia were made by Neandertals about 130,000 years ago. These discoveries expand what we are learning about interbreeding between Neandertals and the more modern humans coming into Eurasia from Africa. Today’s humanity is the result of these expansions and encounters. The more we learn about the details of these interactions, the more we can see how we were formed.

A nice summary of the latest research is found in the journal Science.  The original report, Welker et al., “Palaeoproteomic evidence identifies archaic hominins associated with the Châtelperronian at the Grotte du Renne,” is available free from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


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