DEBORAH AMOS, Host:
They lived in Europe. Eventually they died out and were replaced by modern humans from Africa - Neanderthals. Among anthropologists, Neanderthals don't get much credit for brainpower. But life in snowbound caves may not have been so brutish after all. NPR's Christopher Joyce reports that scientists working in Spain say they have evidence of some pretty sophisticated inventions.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: They coexisted with modern humans for thousands of years and eventually disappeared. They weren't very smart. But archaeologist Joao Zilhao from the University of Bristol in England says he's found evidence at a Spanish excavation that might change that view. He's found shells with holes in them, apparently strung together and worn like beads. And there's something unusual on some of the shells.
JOAO ZILHAO: Glitter makeup or shimmer makeup.
JOYCE: That's right. Glitter makeup.
ZILHAO: Where you, over a foundation, you add shiny bits of something granular that shines and reflects. When light would shine on you, you'd reflect.
JOYCE: There were also several kinds of pigments at the site, including some that had to be mixed from different ingredients.
AMOS: Modern humans didn't migrate into Europe until about 40,000 years ago.
ZILHAO: The shells and the associated pigment evidence is 50,000 years old. So, I mean it can only be made by Neanderthals. There's no question about that.
JOYCE: So let's say Neanderthals did paint and wear those shells or use them to hold cosmetics. Well, to archaeologists, ornaments, shells, body painting aren't just ornaments, they're evidence of symbolic thinking.
ZILHAO: Things that represent ideas. Something that people wear in order to convey what they are. And you only need to do that in a world where you have a complex network of relations, because if you only interact with your family or people who have known you all their lives, they know who you are, you don't need to use an identity card.
JOYCE: Anthropologist Alison Brooks at George Washington University says Neanderthals were known to use pigments, but crudely, like crayons. She's surprised by the painted shells from Spain.
ALISON BROOKS: Okay, the Neanderthals went up a notch in my thinking. This is certainly the oldest and strongest evidence for Neanderthal symbolic behavior beyond just pigment use.
JOYCE: So even though Homo sapiens had developed symbolic thinking before they got to Europe, perhaps Neanderthals were figuring it out for themselves. Brooks suggests that maybe it was the arrival of those modern humans that pushed them into it.
BROOKS: In some way, modern humans were pushing populations in front of them, so that Neanderthals in southern Spain were becoming more crowded in some way, so that they were feeling the need to reach out to a larger safety net, if you like, of individuals.
JOYCE: Christopher Joyce, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.