Pharyngula

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

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