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An Ochered Fossil Marine Shell From the Mousterian of Fumane Cave, Italy

Neandertal

Via PLOS/one

Marco Peresani; Marian Vanhaeren; Ermanno Quaggiotto; Alain Queffelec & Francesco d’Errico.

Fumane Cave

A scanty but varied ensemble of finds challenges the idea that Neandertal material culture was essentially static and did not include symbolic items. In this study we report on a fragmentary Miocene-Pliocene fossil marine shell, Aspa marginata, discovered in a Discoid Mousterian layer of the Fumane Cave, northern Italy, dated to at least 47.6-45.0 Cal ky BP. The shell was collected by Neandertals at a fossil exposure probably located more than 100 kms from the site. Microscopic analysis of the shell surface identifies clusters of striations on the inner lip. A dark red substance, trapped inside micropits produced by bioeroders, is interpreted as pigment that was homogeneously smeared on the outer shell surface. Dispersive X-ray and Raman analysis identify the pigment as pure hematite. Of the four hypotheses we considered to explain the presence of this object at the site, two (tool, pigment container) are discarded because in contradiction with observations. Although the other two (“manuport”, personal ornament) are both possible, we favor the hypothesis that the object was modified and suspended by a ‘thread’ for visual display as a pendant. Together with contextual and chronometric data, our results support the hypothesis that deliberate transport and coloring of an exotic object, and perhaps its use as pendant, was a component of Neandertal symbolic culture, well before the earliest appearance of the anatomically modern humans in Europe.

The broken Aspa marginata shell (a) from the Mousterian stratigraphic Unit A9 of Fumane Cave and three complete natural fossil shells (b–d) of the same species from Pliocene deposits close to Asti, Piemonte region, Italy. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0068572.g003

The broken Aspa marginata shell (a) from the Mousterian stratigraphic Unit A9 of Fumane Cave and three complete natural fossil shells (b–d) of the same species from Pliocene deposits close to Asti, Piemonte region, Italy. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0068572.g003

Stratigraphy of the Fumane Cave sequence in squares 137-147

Stratigraphy of the Fumane Cave sequence in squares 137-147.

Neandertal symbolic behavior is a controversial issue that has attracted much debate over the last thirty years. Recent discoveries and reappraisals of ancient finds suggest that Neandertals were engaged in symbolically mediated behavior before the earliest appearance of anatomically modern humans in Europe. Burials of adults and children in and outside Europe are often considered the most striking evidence supporting the idea that intentional symbolic acts were part of Neandertal cultures. Grave goods in the form of faunal remains, stone and bone tools, engraved bone, and rock slab engraved with cupules are reported at Neandertal primary burials from France and East Asia. Rare objects such as crystals and fossils were apparently collected at Mousterian sites such as Combe Grenal and Chez Pourré-Chez-Comte. 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. Cave sites from Italy, France and Spain yielded evidence of intentional extraction of feathers or terminal pedal phalanges of large raptors and other birds. Use of pigment, as old as 200-250 ky BP, becomes widespread after 60 ky and is associated with the discovery of pigment processing tools and pigment containers. This growing body of evidence creates a more dynamic image of Neandertal cultures and challenges the idea that they were essentially static, closed to innovation and without symbolic imaging.

Here we report on a fossil marine shell, Aspa marginata, discovered in a Mousterian layer (A9) of the Fumane Cave, northern Italy dated to 47.6 cal ky BP. We provide detailed information on the find and its context, investigate the potential sources of the fossil shell, document human modifications, and discuss its significance in the debate on the use of symbolic materials by Neandertals.

Read more at Open access source: PLoS ONE 8(7): e68572, 2013.

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Filed under Homo neanderthalensis, Human Behaviour, Middle Paleolithic