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Jul 18 2013

The most precious jewelry in the world

It’s not the Koh-I-Noor or the Empress Eugenie Brooch or whatever my wife is wearing right now, it’s this:

neandertal_shell

It’s a small, broken fossil shell, collected from a fossil outcrop and transported 110 kilometers to a hole in the ground in Italy. Close inspection reveals that before it was broken, there was a pattern of abrasion in one spot that suggests a hole had been drilled in it and a loop of sinew threaded through it. Although most of it has been worn away by time, bits of material in microscopic pits on its surface reveal that once, this shell had been painted with red ochre.

It doesn’t sound like much. But then, what makes it precious is the burden of antiquity it carries: it’s about 47,000 years old, and it was made by Neandertals.

A few Lower and Middle Paleolithic sites preserve exotic objects with no obvious functional role and striking visual appearance such as quartz crystals, fossils, shells, and natural objects mimicking human or animal shapes. These are interpreted as the first evidence for the ability to distinguish ordinary from exotic items, to create conscious cultural taxonomies, and/or to detect iconicity in the natural world. Some argue these sporadic finds would have prompted the mental bridge between referent and referrer thus igniting the creation of symbolic material cultures. Although this possibility cannot be discarded, three reasons may favor the interpretation of the Aspa marginata from Fumane as a pendant, i.e. an object conceived to be suspended for visual display body through threading or stringing. The attention put to uniformly cover the outer shell surface with good quality red pigment suggests that this action may have been performed to make the object suitable for visual display. The wear detected on the inner lip, made of overlapping groups of striations oriented perpendicular to the shell main axis, is consistent with a sustained friction produced by a cord rich in abrasive particles, such as sinew. The absence of pigment on the shell fracture is most consistent with this item being used as a pendant.

It’s art. Very, very old art, made by a people who are completely extinct today, from a culture of which we have almost no knowledge, just these lost scraps with all context lost. That also adds great value to the object, that it is such a tiny fragment of knowledge, that it reminds us of how little we actually know about these long-gone people. Tens of thousands of years from now, if anyone is going through our decayed rubbish heaps, they aren’t going to find the Mona Lisa, a well-preserved space shuttle, or sheet music from a Beethoven symphony — they’re going to find a broken plastic toy from a McDonald’s Happy Meal, or a nicely symmetrical fragment of a concrete traffic bollard, and I suspect it will be regarded as a great and rare treasure then, too.

I also just find it wonderful to contemplate — that over 40,000 years ago, our relatives found enough stability and security in their communities that they had time to express themselves, and that they naturally exercised their minds and hands to create art, and that they worked to adorn themselves.


Peresani M, Vanhaeren M, Quaggiotto E, Queffelec A, d’Errico F (2013) An Ochered Fossil Marine Shell From the Mousterian of Fumane Cave, Italy. PLoS ONE 8(7): e68572. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0068572

48 comments

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  1. 1
    chigau (違う)

    That is the perfect thing to wake up to.

  2. 2
    Acolyte of Sagan

    Although nowhere as visually stunning as the Lascaux cave paintings, the beauty and importance of this shell cannot be denied.

  3. 3
    Anri

    …bleh, some of us here prefer SCIENCE!

    (There may be sarcasm involved in the above statament.)

    In all seriousness, thanks for this, PZ – very cool!

  4. 4
    carlie

    Koh-i-noor? Your wife wears technical drawing pens?

    Very cool that it’s Neandertal – one of the questions I almost always ask in my evolution class is what the discovery of jewelry means with regard to human cultural evolution.

  5. 5
    rq

    I love this: science is the best. And the age of this… is fantastic.
    See? They were people, too, back then. Different, but not that different. In some ways.

  6. 6
    consciousness razor

    Yes, my precious. Looks good while you’re playing the bone flute, maybe with some drumming and singing and dancing too.

    I know there’s not much evidence to work with, but I wonder how long people (or primates or whatever) have been making art of some kind. Of course making stone tools or whatever is an art, so at least in that sense it goes waaay back; but I mean when they were really concerned with the experiential qualities of an object, their perceptions and conceptions of it, not just its usefulness.

  7. 7
    David Marjanović

    Very cool that it’s Neandertal

    Indeed. People used to wonder whether the Neandertalers were even capable of this kind of thing!

    …and then the introduction says: “Naturally perforated and ochered marine shells were recovered in Mousterian levels dated to ca 50 ky BP at Cueva de Los Aviones and Cueva Antón in the Iberian Peninsula [15].” Ref. 15 is a PNAS paper from 2010, so I’m really surprised I didn’t know about it!

  8. 8
    aaronbaker

    Beautiful.

    That Neanderthals could (and did) create art is a wondrous discovery.

  9. 9
    =8)-DX

    what the discovery of jewelry means with regard to human cultural evolution.

    Um, is the answer: “Dudes got da bling!” ?

  10. 10
    PZ Myers

    What makes you think it’s “dudes”?

  11. 11
    Ogvorbis: Still failing at being human.

    So how long before an A*u*t*c Apist shows up to claim that these prove somethingarglebarbleburp?

    47k. Wow. I’m smiling at that.

  12. 12
    Big Boppa

    Whenever something like this is found it makes me sad to contemplate just how many more wonderful discoveries were forever lost due to 19th and early 20th century practice of dynamite archaeology.

  13. 13
    Draken

    Cue the Ken Ham Clown Crew with a completely carnavalesque 6000-years interpretation.

  14. 14
    robro

    Draken, they’ve already got that covered. God made it look old to test our faith. Or, something artificially aged it. Or, scientists don’t really know how to date these things, and they lie because they hate god. And so forth.

  15. 15
    pHred

    Ah yes, the classic dynamite archaeology along with the forensic backhoe have done amazing amounts of damage. Sigh.

  16. 16
    michaelbusch

    Tens of thousands of years from now, if anyone is going through our decayed rubbish heaps, they aren’t going to find the Mona Lisa,

    True – who throws the Mona Lisa or a space shuttle in the rubbish?
    _
    More seriously: I once heard a group of geologists arguing over what evidence of current human cultures would last the longest. They were trying to decide between isotope anomalies (all of those open-air nuclear weapons tests sprayed very strange things into the environment) and beer bottles as index fossils.

  17. 17
    gillt

    I’m just delighted to see this in an open-access journal!

  18. 18
    Antares42

    Truly moving.

    Makes me want to go to the shore, find a shell, and make a pendant of my own, as a 47-kiloyear fistbump to our long-gone cousins.

  19. 19
    David Marjanović

    the forensic backhoe

    :-D :-D :-D

    I’ve never heard of dynamite being used in archaeology. I thought only palaeontologists ever did that.

  20. 20
    Glen Davidson

    It has the fingerprints of design.

    Must have been aliens or God who made the hole in it. Completely trivial, after designing the organism to make the shell (seriously, why not, if ID were true?).

    Glen Davidson

  21. 21
    Nick Gotts

    but I mean when they were really concerned with the experiential qualities of an object, their perceptions and conceptions of it, not just its usefulness. – consciousness razor

    Take a good look at Acheulean hand axes. These go back well over 1Mya.

  22. 22
    HappiestSadist, Repellent Little Martyr

    That is wonderful. Hooray for very, very old-school art.

  23. 23
    SteveV

    beer bottles as index fossils

    Coke bottles more likely.
    Or ring pulls.

  24. 24
    pacal

    This find is cool. It is one more indication that Homo sapiens, sapiens was not the only “human” around. It appears that there up until 30-20 thousand years ago a variety of humans and that we were in many respects very similar. It also appears that we were similar enough to intermarry at least to some extent. Yes it does appear that we were that last Homo standing but it appears we carry within ourselves traces of those “cousins”.

    The view that those other Homo were entirely “other” and not really “human” seems to be completely wrong. They were human enough, they just weren’t entirely us. But they they were enough like us to leave a trace.

  25. 25
    Rich Woods

    @consciousness razor #6:

    I know there’s not much evidence to work with, but I wonder how long people (or primates or whatever) have been making art of some kind. Of course making stone tools or whatever is an art, so at least in that sense it goes waaay back; but I mean when they were really concerned with the experiential qualities of an object, their perceptions and conceptions of it, not just its usefulness.

    That may be what helps differentiate a species as being people rather than ‘just’ a primate.

    @michaelbusch #16:

    True – who throws the Mona Lisa or a space shuttle in the rubbish?

    Did you see yesterday’s headline about the woman who burned all those stolen paintings? Or how about something like the Rosetta stone, which had been incorporated into the wall of a fort and only recognised for what it was when a French soldier stumbled across it?

  26. 26
    michaelbusch

    @SteveV @23:
    The geologists concerned were drinking beer at the time.
    _
    @Rich Woods @25:
    I was partially joking. But continuing from PZ’s point: Anything thrown into a rubbish heap is not likely to be perfectly preserved. For example: the Rosetta stone is missing large parts of its text. And the Rosetta stone wasn’t anywhere near so important when people still understood what the Egyptian text meant.

  27. 27
    Holms

    Did you see yesterday’s headline about the woman who burned all those stolen paintings? Or how about something like the Rosetta stone, which had been incorporated into the wall of a fort and only recognised for what it was when a French soldier stumbled across it?

    Not to mention this.

  28. 28
    Ing

    I know there’s not much evidence to work with, but I wonder how long people (or primates or whatever) have been making art of some kind. Of course making stone tools or whatever is an art, so at least in that sense it goes waaay back; but I mean when they were really concerned with the experiential qualities of an object, their perceptions and conceptions of it, not just its usefulness.

    My guess is that art is a natural outgrowth of tool use. The minute we started to develop “I can modify item X to change it into something else!” we probably started doing that to things because it made it “look better”

  29. 29
    Glen Davidson

    Anything thrown into a rubbish heap is not likely to be perfectly preserved.

    Sure, but what is? Do museums ensure survival (think of war, especially)? Libraries? Anyway, over the long haul, most everything will pretty much disintegrate.

    On the other hand, a number of clay tablets were preserved by the burning caused during invasions and general mayhem and destruction, since only fired clay typically lasts in all but the driest climates. In Egypt, though, many discarded student papyri (with a number of short excerpts from otherwise lost texts) survived in dumps, while in Europe many texts that people strove to preserve rotted away.

    It all depends. The Library of Congress is a great place preserving huge numbers of writings–so long as our civilization may last. One good nuclear strike, though… If we want to preserve large amounts of today’s (and what has survived the past) it’ll have to be written in lasting media (probably with very tiny letters) and buried where few know and fewer would care to ruin or steal it.

    Glen Davidson

  30. 30
    Amphiox

    I’ve often wondered how future paleontologists would interpret the finding of a fossilized museum exhibit. Depending on the state of preservation, would they be able to figure out that it was a museum, or would they be puzzling over why and how that fossil T-rex ended up in the same strata as the fossil curator.

    Could they even be fooled into thinking that a relic population of T-rex’s survived into the present day? (Ours, not theirs)

  31. 31
    michaelbusch

    @Glen Davidson @29:
    You want the Long Now Foundation. They have been advocating micro-printed corrosion-resistant metal and ceramic wafers for mass distribution, among other things (I did a little consulting for them on the time-keeping for their 10,000-year clock project). http://longnow.org

  32. 32
    Rich Woods

    @michaelbusch #26:

    And the Rosetta stone wasn’t anywhere near so important when people still understood what the Egyptian text meant.

    How many people in the 4th century CE could read Greek, Demotic and Hieroglyphic, six or seven centuries after the stone had been inscribed? Probably only a couple of percent of the population could read anything at all, and by then likely only a handful of priests could still read Hieroglyphic. I think the Rosetta Stone was almost as important then as it is now, but sadly only a few people realised it. Those who didn’t realise it used it to build a wall.

    Sic transit gloria mundi, if you don’t mind me introducing yet another extinct language…

  33. 33
    michaelbusch

    @Rich Woods @2: Fair point.

  34. 34
    gravityisjustatheory

    30
    Amphiox
    18 July 2013 at 4:12 pm (UTC -5) Link to this comment

    I’ve often wondered how future paleontologists would interpret the finding of a fossilized museum exhibit. Depending on the state of preservation, would they be able to figure out that it was a museum, or would they be puzzling over why and how that fossil T-rex ended up in the same strata as the fossil curator.

    On the same note, would generic engineering cause problems for re-discovering evolution? (I.e. would the existance of transgenic organisms appear to “disprove” common descent / look like evidence for Inteligent Design?)

  35. 35
    M31

    @26
    michaelbusch

    @SteveV @23:
    The geologists concerned were drinking beer at the time.

    Well, duh. FTB’s own geologist has a post about geologists and beer, which have a well-known affinity:

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/entequilaesverdad/2011/12/29/hey-geos-ask-me-what-time-it-is/

    (An old buddy of mine who did fieldwork in Death Valley talked about the most important concern of geologists–keeping the beer cold.)

  36. 36
    spamamander, internet amphibian

    Who the hell would want pieces of glassy looking shiny diamonds (not even counting how they are obtained…) when you could have something as awesome as a 47k year old piece of art??

  37. 37
    michaelbusch

    @M31 @35:
    My geologist friends who have spent time in Antarctica have had an inverse and equally serious problem: making sure the beer doesn’t freeze.

  38. 38
    M31

    You’d have to up the alcohol content quite a bit for it not to freeze in Antarctica, :-)

    Wasn’t a bunch of Shackleton’s whiskey retrieved recently?

    (one google search later) yup, great story

  39. 39
    Rev. BigDumbChimp

    Wasn’t a bunch of Shackleton’s whiskey retrieved recently?

    Yep. I’ve had some of the recreation of that whisky.

    Not too shabby.

  40. 40
    Rip Steakface

    Let’s just hope that 40,000 years in the future doesn’t involve 8 foot tall genetically engineered supersoldiers and FTL travel via hell.

  41. 41
    michaelbusch

    M31:

    You’d have to up the alcohol content quite a bit for it not to freeze in Antarctica, :-)

    Hence the urgency of unloading the contents of the warm freight shipments and getting them inside.

  42. 42
    karpad

    PZ, you fool! you’ve just proven the Aquatic Ape! Don’t you see?
    This is why! not to avoid predators, but to fish for shiny shells to make jewelry!

    Clearly this is proof!

  43. 43
    John Morales

    Remarkable and inspiring indeed.

    [meta]

    Anri:

    …bleh, some of us here prefer SCIENCE!.

    Yes, and so what?

    It’s an ancient artifact bespeaking sapience, and that makes it wonderful and evocative even if one is not an art lover.

    (It’s not the science any more than the art, really, it’s its significance)

  44. 44
    Nick Gotts

    Sic transit gloria mundi – rich woods

    Gloria was sick in my Transit on Monday?

  45. 45
    DLC

    Of course it was really only made about 2470 years ago, sometime after the fall of the tower of babel.
    You evil “scientists” would know that if you weren’t blinded by the Jesus-Shaped-Hole in your souls.
    Now go and repent and start singing hymns, or you won’t be able to get into the beer-volcano-less, constantly-singing-praises, no nude dancers having, totally sexual-intercourse-free afterlife. Oh, they call it Paradise. . . I think there’s a false advertising claim there.

  46. 46
    David Marjanović

    Depending on the state of preservation, would they be able to figure out that it was a museum, or would they be puzzling over why and how that fossil T-rex ended up in the same strata as the fossil curator.

    The different states of preservation would immediately give it away. I’ve been to a Miocene marine site where most of the oyster shells are the same age but some are reworked – they were already fossilized and eroded out of somewhere before being redeposited; they’re easy to recognize.

  47. 47
    Rich Woods

    @Nick Gotts #44:

    Gloria was sick in my Transit on Monday?

    Not as bad as her brother, Rex Mundi.

    I’ll get me coat.

  48. 48
    Sili

    What makes you think it’s “dudes”?

    Can’t speak for =8)-DX, but I think some people use “dudes” and “guys” for both genders.

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