Neandertal painted shell pendant

The final paragraph of this new paper by Marco Peresani and colleagues Peresani:2013 lists all the essential details:

In conclusion, analysis of the Aspa marginata found in Fumane Unit 9 shows that this fossil gastropod was collected by Neandertals, makers of the Discoid industry, at a Miocene or Pliocene fossil outcrop, the closest of which is located more than one hundred kilometers from the site. The shell was smeared with a pure, finely ground, hematite powder, probably mixed with a liquid. It was perhaps perforated and used as a personal ornament before being discarded, lost or intentionally left at Fumane Cave, some 47,6-45,0 cal ky BP. The minimum age of the Fumane unit in which the Aspa marginata was found predates the oldest available dates for the arrival of anatomically modern humans (AMH) in Europe [90] thus supporting the hypothesis that deliberate transport and coloring of exotic objects, and perhaps their use as pendants, was a component of Neandertal cultures [91,92,15]. That the pendant appears well before the presumed first appearance of AMH in Europe [93, but see 90,94] indicates that Neandertals made this art object without the influence of AMH. The use of this shell by Neandertals as a result of contact with immigrant AMH is also contradicted by the absence of this particular taxon of shell at Early Upper Paleolithic sites across Europe [95,96]. The only other Paleolithic occurrence is a specimen found in the Epigravettian horizons of Riparo Tagliente in the Lessini Mountains of NE Italy [97]. Thus, this discovery adds to the ever-increasing evidence that Neandertals had symbolic items as part of their culture. Future discoveries will only add to our appreciation of Neandertals shared capacities with us.

This example of Neandertal ornament production is especially interesting in light of claims about later Upper Paleolithic uses of fossil shells. For example, Magdalenian peoples apparently transported fossil shells from the Eocene deposits of the Paris Basin to Belgium, which has been argued as support for long-distance trade or kinship networks in this later Upper Paleolithic timeframe Jochim:1999. Here we are faced with much less evidence: a single shell instead of several.

Of course, that is usually the case with Neandertal-era archaeological sites, much less evidence scattered over a relatively longer time. When we compare these records we should explicitly correct for the differences in preservation and intensity of deposition of materials. The Magdalenian covered as little as 4000 years total, with the greatest density of sites covering only around 2000 years near the end of the Upper Paleolithic. It is interesting to speculate what we might find with a high-density sample of Neandertal material culture well-dated to an equivalent 2000-year timespan.