January 29, 2012

Early Neandertals used red ochre

I have never quite understood the fascination of archaeologists with red ochre. As far as I can tell, this fascination stems from the fact that it is a pigment that survives in time, and had been used by the earliest artists during the Upper Paleolithic. By extrapolation, its presence in earlier contexts has been interpreted as evidence of "art" or "symbolic behavior". So, a new paper that appeared in PNAS slightly demystifies the pigment by discovering its use more than 200 thousand years in Europe, probably by early Neandertals, and at the same time as its earliest traces in Africa.

In my opinion, this points to the conclusion that use of pigments and red ochre in particular is not a modern human innovation that was adopted (late) by the sister Neandertal taxon, but rather that something that humans used long-before the advent of "modernity", dating, perhaps, to H. heidelbergensis, the common ancestor of modern humans and Neandertals.

Of interest in that regard is the following tidbit of information from an unrelated source:
Sicevo Gorge - a canyon cut into the Kunivica plateau in southeastern Serbia - contains a series of caves, at least one of which has yielded evidence of human presence during the Ice Age of present-day Europe. In 2008, anthropologists excavating in a small cave uncovered a partial human lower jaw with three teeth. 
"We were looking for Neanderthals," said Dr. Mirjana Roksandic, a participating palaeo-anthropologist with the University of Winnepeg (Canada) and a leading research team member. "But this is much better. 
"What they discovered was definitely a human that, at least in terms of morphology, predated the Neanderthal and may have had more in common physically with Homo erectus - thought by many scientists to be the precursor to both Neanderthals and modern humans. Recent tests conducted by Dr. Norbert Mercier at the University of Bordeaux (France) produced a date of "older than" 113,000 years BP - long before modern humans in present-day Europe - and the fossil could be substantially older.
So, I would not assume that 200-250ky ago in Europe was definitely "early Neandertals".

John Hawks covers the paper in detail.

PNAS doi: 10.1073/pnas.1112261109

Use of red ochre by early Neandertals

Wil Roebroeks et al.


The use of manganese and iron oxides by late Neandertals is well documented in Europe, especially for the period 60–40 kya. Such finds often have been interpreted as pigments even though their exact function is largely unknown. Here we report significantly older iron oxide finds that constitute the earliest documented use of red ochre by Neandertals. These finds were small concentrates of red material retrieved during excavations at Maastricht-Belvédère, The Netherlands. The excavations exposed a series of well-preserved flint artifact (and occasionally bone) scatters, formed in a river valley setting during a late Middle Pleistocene full interglacial period. Samples of the reddish material were submitted to various forms of analyses to study their physical properties. All analyses identified the red material as hematite. This is a nonlocal material that was imported to the site, possibly over dozens of kilometers. Identification of the Maastricht-Belvédère finds as hematite pushes the use of red ochre by (early) Neandertals back in time significantly, to minimally 200–250 kya (i.e., to the same time range as the early ochre use in the African record).



eurologist said...

... H. heidelbergensis, the common ancestor of modern humans and Neanderthals.

I have waited for a statement like this to appear on a major blog (let alone in the Anglo-American research community literature) forever. I know you have become aware of the type specification validation - but props to you for taking the more and more obvious stance - but one that still is not recognized in the Anglo-American research community - for whatever reasons.

As a side note, heidelbergensis may be our main progenitor because of:
- direct descent from Eastern European/Western Asian groups;
- apparently freely flowing gene exchange and similar development in Europe, Western Asia, and parts of Africa until about 400,000ya and thus descent from such African populations;
- admixture from heidelbergensis-derived Neanderthals;
- admixture by heidelbergensis-derived Denisovans.

So, I would not assume that 200-250ky ago in Europe was definitely "early Neandertals".

In my evaluation, heidelbergensis can be clearly identified after ~800,000 to 600,000ya, and Neanderthals transition from a mainly Western European sub-population ~ 200,000 to 150,000ya. But heidelbergensis continued on in the East of Europe, in the Levant, and from several findings, in much of West Asia and (perhaps?) all the way into China (based on the sudden appearance of huge cultural differences w/r to previous, very ancient erectus, there).

Charlotte said...

This topic is far out of my field, but if you'd allow me to make a comment: My understanding is that red ochre has a variety of practical uses; its value is not only symbolic. The Himba women of Namibia, for example, use a blend of red ochre and fat to protect their skin from drying out in the desert sun. It is a beauty treatment with symbolic value (the red symbolizes rich earth and life's blood), but under desert conditions it also has a practical side.

I wonder whether red ochre might have been used by Middle Pleistocene hominins for similar, entirely practical reasons, long before it was given its symbolic value by modern Homo sapiens. Steppe and savannah winds can dry skin out as painfully as desert sun and wind will do.

Likewise, Himba women wear ankle bracelets made of shells which rattle as they walk, protecting them from poisonous snakes who flee the sound. The ankle bracelets are of course also an item of personal adornment, and very beautiful, but they too have a practical side. Perhaps some of the early examples of perforated shells were used to warn away reptiles, or even as game calls, before they were given value as items of ritual or personal adornment.

just thoughts from someone in the humanities; feel free to disregard.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Red oche matters to the extent that it establishes behavior modernity in a population not thought to be so behaviorally modern. Neanderthal symbolic and artistic expression may not have been completely absent, but was far more primative than that of the contemporaneous modern humans.

Charlotte's point is therefore an important one supported by the context of the find which found spatter of drops of liquid ochre, not an artistic or symbolic context (and Charlotte is far too self-depricating for her own good as she has something very solid to say). To the extent that there are a good non-artistic/non-symbolic reason for European Neanderthals to have liquid ochre, it is more consistent behaviorally with everything else we know about Neanderthals. It makes much more sense for Neanderthals ca. 200kay to 250kya to be using ochre as a skin moisturizer, for example, than it does as an artistic pigment.