Pigment use and symbolic behavior in the Neandertals

10 minute read

Some months ago I was taking some notes about Neandertal pigment use, drawn from a recent article by Marie Soressi and Francesco d’Errico. I got distracted and didn’t finish writing them up at the time.

Recently, a number of readers have asked for my thoughts on the article, “The Mythical Moderns,” by Robert Bednarik. It is very much worth doing, particularly since a couple of prominent news articles have returned to the issue of “out of Africa” and modern human origins. I also want to discuss the ongoing debate between Paul Mellars and João Zilhão (and others), which touches on many of the same issues. But it’s going to take a lot of groundwork to do a good job reviewing the current state of the science.

So I’m returning to old notes, including these.

Soressi and d’Errico’s article (in French) discusses three different kinds of evidence for Neandertal “symbolic behavior” (I’m going to scare-quote this for the time being), including engravings (mainly on bone, but also stone), ornaments, and pigments. The first two are worth separate discussions, and in particular Neandertal pendants and other ornamental objects are reviewed well in other publications. The real feature of this article is its relatively detailed discussion of the authors’ work documenting pigment use. I’ve translated the French here to give the gist of the section. I’m retaining “colorant” throughout even though it’s an odd English word, but it’s hard to translate differently without creating redundancies, since in some cases it might be better rendered as “paint,” “pigment,” or simply “color.” The section immediately follows the authors’ discussion about the Neandertals’ possible curation of “curiosities” like fossils and minerals, explaining the first sentence:

Blocks of pigments have long been placed in the category of curiosities. However, certain authors very early on advanced the hypothesis that these blocks could have been used as colorants. The technical and trace analysis of this material, together with the creation of an experimental reference, provide a new basis for the interpretation of colorant use by Neandertals. This work is in progress, but already we can demonstrate the transport of these pigments into archaeological deposits and can interpret their mode of use.
In Europe, more than 70 horizons dated to the Lower and Middle Paleolithic have yielded blocks of pigments or objects that served to grind colorants. Most often, these consist of black pigment, manganese dioxide, and more rarely ochre. Most of these sites date to the end of the Middle Paleolithic, between 60 and 40,000 years ago, and are attributed to the Mousterian of Acheulean Tradition (MTA), or to the Charentian Mousterian.
We have undertaken the study of this category of artifacts, combining microscopic and rugosimetric analyses. This is possible without danger to the objects thanks to unique equipment which images and allows 3D reconstruction of the microtopography of surfaces without any physical contact. This equipment also allows a quantification of the state of the surface for measurement of variables related to its rugosity [roughness]. One can thus compare on the same basis both archaeological pieces and experimental products, [....] the qualitative character of simple microscopic observations. (Soressi and d'Errico 2007:303-304, my translation).

Their detailed work was concentrated on the pigments found at the two sites of Pech de l’Azé I and IV. I am translating an extensive section here that details why Soressi and d’Errico are making a strong claim for pigment use:

More than 500 blocks have been discovered [at Pech I], some found during our recent excavations in a level older than 43,000 years (Soressi et al. 2007). The site had been excavated in the 19th century, and it is probable that the 500 blocks and fragments in our analysis represent less than half of the total colorant fragments left in the site by the Neandertals. Pech IV is 80 meters from Pech I, and its upper beds are contemporary with the latter site (McPherron et al. 2001, McPherron and Dibble 2000); but, in contrast with Pech I, only a very small number of colorants have been found at Pech IV: 26 pieces, spread across 9 archaeological levels, with 15 clearly utilized.
These pigments are most often blocks of manganese dioxide, suitable as black colorant. Some blocks of red or yellow ochre have also been found, but none bear clear traces of use. These blocks can be found naturally in the environment near the sites, the source is local.
The observations on blocks of manganese dioxide show that there is a clear difference between the natural surface of a block, which is irregular, and surfaces used by people, which are planed off by abrasion and in some cases polished (Figure 11). Most of the blocks of manganese dioxide bear clear traces of use: at least 250 pieces utilized at Pech I, a bit more than 20 at Pech IV. Many facts indicate that these traces are due to intentional modifications and use as pigments, and not natural or post-depositional alterations:
these pigment blocks are associated with objects used to work them (a millstone, made on flint);
the use facets on these blocks are similar to those observed on Upper Paleolithic pigments and identical to those that we have produced experimentally;
the position and morphology of the use facets on the blocks are not randomly placed and could not be created by a natural phenomenon.
Very few of these colorant blocks appear to have been carved or engraved by a pointed object like a sharp flint or a bone flake. Most have been abraded, which produced facets covered with fine parallel striations. Seventy percent of the facets bear striations visible to the naked eye. Others bear microscopic striations or present totally polished surfaces. The location of the facets on the support and the orientation of the striations reveals that the [hand] motions that abraded them followed a pattern. The small ends of blocks were systematically used in a way that produced elongated facets. To produce these facets, the Neandertal exercised a back-and-forth motion on a flat grindstone, in a direction parallel or oblique to the axis of the future facet. This process allowed the production of quite flat or slightly convex facets. Also, some pieces bear traces of use on a pointed end, or at the edge between facets, indicating that they were used as crayons.
We have observed that many possible uses appear not to correspond to the depth, density, or morphology of striations seen on archaeological pigments. For example, striations that come from rubbing on fine sandstone similar to that found at the site are very specific and are not found except on a very small proportion of the archaeological pieces.
At the other extreme, the polish that is obtained experimentally by rubbing a block on wet skin is very different from the polish observed in the archaeological blocks.
At this stage, our ongoing analyses show that among the blocks from Pech de l'Azé I, more than half were abraded on stone before being used on supple materials, such as dry skin or human skin. The abrasion of pigments on stone plaques, also found in the excavations, appears to have been done by the Neandertals with the objective of creating elongated facets with strong potential as colorants, which could then be used to mark, as with charcoal, other supple materials, including human skin, for body paintings. The mode of use of blocks from Pech IV does not appear very different. Some pieces bear grooves produced by scraping the surface with flakes or retouched tools. That indicates, in parallel with another use of charcoal, the Neandertals produced a colorant powder for use as such, or more probably, mixed with a binding agent. Considering the volume of sediments excavated at the two sites, the inhabitants of Pech IV utilized less colorant than those of Pech I, and at the latter site, those who contributed to the formation of the lower beds used more than those who accumulated the upper beds. The blocks of pigments were therefore used more intensively in some circumstances or periods but rarely in others. (Soressi and d'Errico 2007:305-306).

They go on to conclude that the circumstances leading to pigment use by Neandertals may be explicable by social or intrinsic factors, because the availability of raw material was certainly the same for the two sites, and the environment was also approximately the same across the duration of habitation, as indicated by the faunal remains.

After their discussion of all three aspects of symbolic behavior, Soressi and d’Errico return to the question of how pigment use relates to the other elements of the record:

The facts permit one to maintain that artistic activities in the most ancient Neandertals were rare. However, after 60,000 years ago, the use of pigments, the fabrication of pendants, and the ornamentation of bone objects with abstract designs make the archaeological evidence easier to interpret. Some of these activities, like the use of pigments, seem to have been developed well before any direct contact with modern humans. For pendants and decorated bone objects, the scientific community is divided. Some consider these manifestations as autonomous developments; others as the result of contact between Neandertals and moderns; others as an acculturation of Neandertals, which could have been taken from cognitively superior modern humans. Finally, some authors think that Neandertals would not truly have been influenced by modern humans, but merely copied modern behaviors without understanding the profound implications. This latter vision is becoming more and more a minority position, and a consensus seems to be forming that even where certain cases were acquired by contact, this transfer was possible because Neandertal societies possessed cognition and social systems and techniques permitting such exchanges.
It is dangerous to deduce from the late date of this development that the Neandertals were limited in their cognitive capacities for the production of artistic works. In fact, only modern human societies in Europe, more recent than the last Neandertals, give us preserved evidence of prolific artistic activities. Things went differently elsewhere in the world, both before, and even after 35,000 years ago.
In the end, it is evident that much work remains to be accomplished. Most transported objects, called "curiosities," as well as most pieces bearing regular incisions, have not been analyzed with modern methods. It is indispensible to dispose of many assumptions in order to more precisely understand the context of the development of symbolism in Neandertals. Only from these efforts will such art become less equivocal (Soressi and d'Errico 2007:307, my translation).

Stalagmite containers

The evidence for pigment use in the Mousterian is not only centered around these crayons of pigment themselves. In Cioarei-Borosteni Cave, Romania, eight pigment containers have been found in a Middle Paleolithic context. These are small fragments of stalagmites, basically cup-shaped, with pigment and scratches on the inside.

The hollow in 8 oval (4-8 cm wide) fragments of stalagmite is about 1 cm. The edges are fractured, perhaps by natural causes. However, some scraping and polish marks in the middle of the hollows can be easily observed under microcope. Ochre deposits are also visible inside them, but never on the outside surface. The ochre remains are either isolated, or covering the entire surface of the concavity and the edges of the fragment. Complete chemical analysis will reveal the origin of this deposit and its link with the ochre residues observed in the sediments. The fact that the scraping and polish marks are always localized in the same zone, associated with the yellow and red ochre remains, suggests human action (Carciumaru et al. 2002:684).

Carciumaru et al. note that similar stalgmite containers have been found in the Upper Paleolithic of France (Villars, Delluc 1974), but not otherwise in the Middle or Lower Paleolithic. They review the possible utilitarian uses of ochre in tanning, but note that the lack of other evidence of lithic production or other intensive activity in the cave suggests that it was not a main processing site for hides. They point to body painting or other pigment-using activity as the probable use of the containers.


Carciumaru M, Moncel M-H, Anghelinu M, Carciumaru R. 2002. The Cioarei-Borosteni Cave (Carpathian Mountains, Romania): Middle Palaeolithic finds and technological analysis of the lithic assemblages. Antiquity 76:681-690.

Soressi M, D'Errico F. 2007. Pigments, gravures, parures: Les comportements symboliques controversés des Néandertaliens. Pp. 297-309 in Les Néandertaliens. Biologie et cultures. Document préhistoriques 23. Éditions du CTHS, Paris.