Just as modern humans have a taste for the finer things in life, so too were Neanderthals capable of creating symbolic artifacts such as jewelry, according to a study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The research clears up a long-standing controversy surrounding a series of decorative artifacts discovered several decades ago in a cave in France, which some scholars had said could only have been created by modern humans as they assumed Neanderthals lacked the intelligence to appreciate symbolism.
The specimens in question consist of small beads crafted from shells and animal teeth, and were first unearthed in the mid-twentieth century by scientists working in the Grotte du Renne in central France. Within the cave, researchers stumbled upon the so-called Châtelperronian technocomplex, which contains a huge number of ancient relics dating back to the time when Neanderthals and modern humans co-existed in Europe.
Many of the items retrieved from this archaeological treasure trove have been dated to around 40,000 to 50,000 years ago, which is just around the time that Neanderthals finally died out in the region. Because of this, scientists have failed to agree on whether certain relics were created by Homo sapiens or their evolutionary predecessors.
Radiocarbon dating has indicated that the beads found in these caves are around 42,000 years old, resulting in an ongoing debate as to who actually created them. The issue has remained unresolved largely because of the fact that DNA in bones buried next to these beads had deteriorated to the point where it could no longer be used to identify which species they belonged to.
The entrance to the Grotte du Renne, where the artifacts were found. M. Hardy
However, the study authors have bypassed this issue by using a new technique that relies on the analysis of amino acids rather than DNA. In particular, they studied collagen obtained from these bones, and discovered that they contained a high proportion of an amino acid called asparagine, which is known to have been prevalent in Neanderthal collagen but not in that of modern humans.
To confirm this, the team then sequenced the mitochondrial DNA in these bone fragments, looking for a particular gene that is known to have coded for the synthesis of this amino acid in Neanderthal collagen. After confirming that this gene was indeed present in these bones, the study authors were able to conclude that they belonged to individuals whose mothers were Neanderthals (since mitochondrial DNA is only passed down the maternal line).
As such, it seems likely that Neanderthals did create this ancient jewelry after all, suggesting they may have been capable of symbolic expression, and therefore more intelligent than we often give them credit for.