Minds at work

Disputes over whether Neanderthals were capable of symbolic thinking turn on a smattering of discoveries spanning more than 200,000 years.

Years ago Event Description Photo Credit
300,000 First appearance of Neanderthals in Europe Neanderthals are thought to have originated in western Eurasia and migrated into Europe some time after 300,000 years ago. First appearance of Neanderthal in Europe Natural History Museum/Mary Evans
250,000 Ochre use Not not long after Neanderthals appeared in Europe, they were using ochre. The pigment can serve for decoration, but it also has practical uses. Evidence of ochre use Ref. 7
120,000 Sophisticated hafting of spear points By heating birch sap while protecting it from the air, Neanderthals made a glue for attaching stone flakes and points to spear handles. Sophisticated hafting of spear points Natural History Museum/Mary Evans
60,000 Possible Neanderthal feather use Cut marks on wing bones suggest that Neanderthals may have used feathers from crows and raptors as ornaments. Cut marks on wing bones Finlayson, C. et al. PLoS ONE 7, e45927 (2012)
70,000–50,000 Possible burials at La Ferrassie, France Neanderthals are thought to have buried their dead, including this individual from La Ferrassie. But some researchers question whether the burials were deliberate. Possible burials at La Ferrassie Erich Lessing/akg-images
50,000 Shell beads from Spain Neanderthals seem to have worn pendants of coloured shells before the arrival of modern humans in Europe. Shell beads from Spain Ref. 8
45,000–43,000 Modern humans appear in Europe Teeth found in the Grotta del Cavallo in Italy mark the arrival of modern humans there as early as 45,000 years ago. By 43,000 years ago, modern humans had reached Britain, a jawbone from Kents Cavern suggests. Modern Humans Appear Benazzi, S. et al. Nature 479, 525–528 (2011)
40,800 Oldest cave paintings The oldest painted dot in El Castillo cave in Spain is at least 40,800 years old. New dating work will determine whether the paintings predate the appearance of modern humans in this part of Europe. Neanderthal or Modern human Pedro Saura
45,000–40,000 Animal tooth pendants from Grotte du Renne, France The teeth of foxes and marmots found in Grotte du Renne were grooved or pierced so that they could be worn as pendants. Many archaeologists believe that Neanderthals made them, but arguments continue about whether the ornaments reflect the influence of modern humans. Animal tooth pendants Ref. 5
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