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Chapter 6. The emergence of language, art and symbolic thinking

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 
e emergence of language, art
and symbolic thinking
A Neandertal test of competing hypotheses
João Zilhão
ICREA Research Professor SERP – Department of Prehistory, Ancient
History and Archaeology,
University of Barcelona/Institució Catalana de Recerca i Estudis Avançats (ICREA)
ere is a widespread understanding that the personal ornaments of the African
Middle Stone Age and the animal and human gurines of the Aurignacian of
southern Germany provide the earliest evidence of the possession of “modern
cognitive capabilities, ones that appeared for the rst time in human evolution
as a result of the speciation of Homo sapiens and that would explain its rapid
expansion from Africa into Eurasia and the attendant extinction of coeval archaic
humans (such as the Neandertals). e archaeological facts contradict this view,
since there is abundant evidence for the existence of such “modern” capabilities in
non-sapiens populations, and that language, “symbolic thinking” by denition, is
probably as old as the human genus. erefore, the explanation for the emergence
of body ornamentation and gurative art must be sought not in the realm of
cognition but in that of history, with demographic growth and the intensication
of social interaction networks playing a primary role in the process.
1.  Introduction
e last y years of scientic research established beyond reasonable doubt that
the earliest human ancestors appeared in Africa some time around two million
years ago. Soon aer, these Homo erectus people expanded into Eurasia. By one
and a half million years ago, they had already reached the Indonesian island of
Java, but it would take a bit longer for Europe to be stably settled (Dennell &
Roebroeks 2005).
e earliest evidence comes from Iberia, where the so-called Homo antecessor
fossils from Atapuerca date to about one million years ago (Bermúdez de Castro
et al. 2004; Carbonell et al. 2008). Coeval African fossils are scarce, but, altogether,
the evidence suggests that a trend towards increased brain size and correlated
changes in the shape of the skull was under way at this time throughout the entire
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11 João Zilhão
Old World (McHenry & Cong 2000; Lee & Wolpo 2003). Geneticists have
related these changes to a second Out-of-Africa expansion, represented, archaeo-
logically, by the spread of the Acheulian technocomplex, whose iconic stone tool
is the handaxe or biface (Templeton 2002, 2005).
Subsequent geographic isolation led to the dierentiation of these Acheu-
lian populations into two lineages. In Europe and western Asia, Homo erectus
became Neandertal man sometime around 500 ka. At the same time, in Africa,
Homo erectus became Homo sapiens (or “modern humans”), and, some 50 ka, in
the framework of a third Out-of-Africa event, spread into Eurasia, Australia, and,
eventually, the Americas (Trinkaus 2005).
Over the last quarter of a century, it has become clear that early African sapi-
ens are ancestral to all present-day living humans but no agreement exists where
Eurasian Neandertals are concerned. e level of their separation in taxonomy, the
extent of their dierences in biology, behaviour and culture, and their ultimate fate,
remain to this day among the hottest topics in human evolution studies. at Nean-
dertals are no more is uncontroversial, but when, why and how were they replaced?
ese questions have fundamental implications for the understanding of the
emergence of art, language and symbolic thinking in the human lineage. e
long lasting geographical segregation of the two palaeontological taxa, Homo
neanderalensis and Homo sapiens, and the ultimate replacement of the former
by the latter are widely assumed to imply that they were truly dierent biological
species. And, as textbook denitions require species to dier in behaviour as
much as in morphology, the corollary expectation is that signicant behav-
ioural dierences, with attendant cognitive implications, must have separated
“anatomically modern” people from coeval “archaic” humans, namely the
Neandertals (Henshilwood & Marean 2003).
e notion that such a separation existed at biospecies level dovetails with
speculations that certain features of complex human culture, which are undoc-
umented in the archaeological record of Homo erectus and other early humans
such as art, or ritual burial, must have emerged as a by-product of the processes
involved in the speciation of the African sapiens. Under this “Human Revolution
hypothesis (Mellars & Stringer 1989; Mellars et al. 2007), the absence of those
features reects the lack of the required cognitive capabilities. In this view, it is
only aer the acquisition of such capabilities by the rst “modern humans” that
the corresponding behavioural correlates could be and indeed were externalized
in archaeologically visible ways.
Material evidence consistent with this paradigm – marine shell beads, inter-
preted as personal ornaments and, in some instances, associated with skeletal
remains of early modern humans – has been obtained over the last decade at
archaeological sites dated to between 75 ka and 100 ka in Palestine, Morocco
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Chapter 6. e emergence of language, art and symbolic thinking 11
and South Africa (d’Errico et al. 2005; Vanhaeren et al. 2006; Bouzouggar et al.
2007) (Figure 1). In the ethnographic present, personal ornaments play the role
of conveyors of the social identity of persons – group membership, gender, and
individual life-history characteristics (age, marital status, etc.). Working with such
symbolic systems of personal presentation and re-presentation implies language
and requires cognitive capabilities unknown among our closest living relatives, the
chimpanzees. Although we have to bear in mind that, prior to the invention of writ-
ing systems, the evidence for language can only be indirect, all of this still is rather
uncontroversial. But was the emergence of such capabilities in the human lineage as
recent a phenomenon as postulated by the “Human Revolution”?
Figure 1. Middle Stone Age Nassarius kraussianus shell beads from Blombos Cave, South
Africa (size range: 7–10.5 mm) (photo courtesy of C. Henshilwood and F. d’Errico)
A major empirical hurdle faced by this paradigm is that the putative speciation
event leading to Homo sapiens occurred between 150 ka and 200 ka (Lahr & Foley
1998), which begs an obvious question: If symbolic thinking and modern cognition
are a simple by-product of the biological processes involved in that speciation
event, why did it take at least 50 000 years for manifestations of those capabilities
(such as the African shells beads) to appear in the archaeological record? And why
was it that yet another 50 000 years were necessary for the emergence of gurative
art, the earliest examples of which are the cave paintings of Chauvet, in France
(Clottes et al. 1995), and the animalistic, anthropomorphic and therianthropic
ivory gurines from dierent caves of the Swabian Jura, in Germany, dated to
about 35–37 ka (Conard 2009) (Figure 2)?
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11 João Zilhão
From the ethnographic record, we also know that the visual display of
objects conveying information on the personal and social identity of the indi-
viduals carrying such objects is targeted at encounters with strangers or people
infrequently met. ere are two rather good reasons for this: rstly, without
some prior experience of interaction, the meaning of the visual symbols would
be opaque to the viewer; secondly, identifying one’s aliation or identity to
family and immediate acquaintances does not require material symbols (Kuhn
et al. 2001). e possibility exists, therefore, that the appearance of ornaments
in the archaeological record reects the crossing of demographical thresholds,
above which long-distance interaction networks involving alliance, exchange or
mating were necessary.
Figure 2. Sculpted ivory gurines from the Late Aurignacian of southern Germany, dated to
~35–37 ka. Le: “Venus” pendant from Hohle Fels. Right: horse (top) and lion (bottom) from
Vogelherd (photos by H. Jensen, courtesy of N. Conard, University of Tübingen)
If so, then the absence of evidence for “modern” cognition prior to about 100 ka
would not be evidence for its absence among anatomically “modern” humans prior
to that time; it would simply mean that, in those days, the social life of humans had
not yet eected the “release from proximity” (Gamble 1998) that eventually gener-
ated the need to have symbolic identities and ways of displaying it. But once we
admit that the emergence of the earliest material evidence of “modern” cognition
can relate to social, not biological processes, we have no choice but to ask ourselves
whether the same does not apply as well to earlier humans, namely Homo erectus.
Given that brains do not fossilise and that the evidence for language in Palaeolithic
times is indirect, could it be that, cognitively, these earlier ancestors were also fully
human, i.e. gied with such behavioural features as language and all its palaeon-
tologically invisible neurological correlates? Put another way, could it be that, as
argued by Deacon (1997), language and symbolic thinking appeared in the earliest,
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Chapter 6. e emergence of language, art and symbolic thinking 11
not the latest stages of the evolution of humans, but did not externalize in ways
amenable to preservation in the material record of the prehistoric past until much
more recently?
Given the genetic and palaeontological evidence that the European lineage
leading to Neandertals had already branched o of the African stem by half a
million years ago, the archaeology of the Neandertals provides the ideal test-
ing ground for the dierent views of the emergence of language and “modern
cognition. If the “Human Revolution” is right, then neither personal ornaments
nor art should be found among the Neandertals. If either is found, then the
“Human Revolution” is refuted and we must look for alternative ways to explain
the emergence of those behaviours in the archaeological record.
.  Neandertal-ness
Neandertals are named aer a skeleton found in 1856 at the Kleine Feldhoer
cave, in the Neander valley, near Düsseldorf. Today’s scientists, however, are not
the only group of people for whom “Neandertal” has a well-dened meaning.
e word is also used in common language to disqualify dislikeable individuals,
including political opponents. Opening any dictionary immediately brings up
these alternative meanings. e Cambridge On-line, for instance, gives the follow-
ing: (1) “relating to a type of primitive people who lived in Europe and Asia from
about 150,000 to 30,000 years ago” (2) said “of people or beliefs very old-fashioned
and not willing to change” (3) said “(of people) rude or oensive.
In order to understand the Neandertals’ enduring bad reputation, we have
to bear in mind that, in the mid-nineteenth century, Evolution was conceived in
the framework of a progressivist mindset – the directional development of ever
more complex and sophisticated forms of life from a simple, primitive common
ancestor, with humans sitting at the top of the ladder. Evolution also implied,
as Darwin eventually made explicit, that humankind had ape-like ancestors.
In this context, two things were, in retrospect, entirely predictable: rstly, a
predisposition to interpret any intermediate fossil forms as “part-ape/part-man
in both morphology and behaviour; secondly, because things are what they are
only trough their opposition with what they are not, a predisposition to imagine
the “animality” of those ancestors as consisting of features representing the exact
opposite of “humanity” as Victorians perceived it.
To make things worse, progressivist preconceptions were compounded by
scientic error (Trinkaus & Shipman 1993). One of the rst Neandertal articulated
skeletons to be found, 100 years ago now, was that from the cave site of La Chapelle-
aux-Saints. e famous French physical anthropologist Marcelin Boule made a
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11 João Zilhão
classical and in many respects paradigmatic description of this fossil. Unfortunately,
he also mistook for the normal Neandertal condition numerous and major
pathological, arthritic malformations developed late in the ontogeny of the elderly
subject of his study. As a result, both popular and scientic opinion converged in
considering Neandertals as a side branch, a dead-end of Evolution, both distinct
from and inferior to true humans. As late as 1953, Neandertals were still portrayed
as the archetypal “half-man/half-beast” of a famous Hollywood lm (Figure 3).
Figure 3. e original advertisement for the 1953 movie “e Neanderthal Man” as
reproduced on the cover of a recent DVD edition
In the 1960s, this prevailing view was challenged. Boule’s error was exposed,
and greater emphasis was placed on the signicance of skeletons found in Palestine
in the 1930s. ese fossils, recovered at two nearby cave sites in Mt. Carmel,
seemingly displayed an intermediate anatomy, prompting suggestions that the
Near East had functioned as a zone of admixture between European Neandertals
and early African sapiens (McCown & Keith 1939). Moreover, there was growing
recognition at this time that, archaeologically, the two groups had been doing
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Chapter 6. e emergence of language, art and symbolic thinking 11
pretty much the same thing throughout the period between 100 ka and 50 ka. eir
stone tools were indistinguishable, and they had buried their dead, a practice that
implies world views and religious beliefs (Leakey & Lewin 1977). In sum, the two
lineages behaved in ways whose level of complexity required the use of language
and symbols, as should be expected from cranial capacity – Neandertal brains were
in fact larger than ours.
ese developments led many scholars to wonder whether Neandertals,
instead of an unrelated side-branch, could have been a regional variant of a single
evolving human species and, as such, the direct ancestors of today’s Europeans. In
this view, called the Multiregional Hypothesis (Wolpo 2002; orne & Wolpo
2003), present racial diversity would be the outcome of a deep-rooted continuity
between today’s populations and those of the remotest past. ere would have
been one and only one Out-of-Africa event, modern Asians and Europeans would
be the descendants, through a series of convergent changes in morphology, of the
rst Homo erectus settlers, and features such as the big noses of Europeans would
be an example of the persistence of Neandertal “blood” in living humans.
e 1980s saw the birth of an entirely new line of inquiry, human genetics,
which eventually questioned this 1960s view of the Neandertals as fundamentally
human. e study of variation in the mitochondrial DNA of extant people led
to the conclusion that we are all very closely related, implying a very recent last
common ancestor, one who would have lived in Africa some 150 ka (Cann et al.
1987). Because mtDNA is inherited through the maternal line, this genetic ances-
tor was called Eve. In the Eve scenario, her children would subsequently replace
the Neandertals and other coeval archaic forms of Eurasian humans, which would
all become extinct without descent. is view was supported by genetic inferences
derived from the fossil mtDNA successfully extracted from the original Neander-
tal specimen, in 1997, followed, a decade later, by preliminary sequencing results
for the entire nuclear genome of another Neandertal individual from the Croatian
cave site of Vindija (Krings et al. 1997; Green et al. 2006; Noonan et al. 2006).
e weight of scientic opinion (e.g. Klein 2003) saw in these results support
for the notion that the Neandertals were phylogenetically distant and belonged
in an altogether dierent species. Unaected by the “Human Revolution, they
must have lacked language, or have only had an exceedingly primitive version of
it. Moreover, no division of labour and no form of social organization beyond that
required by the groups need to reproduce would have existed, and the so-called
Neandertal burials probably were nothing more than simple body disposal without
religious meaning. In these circumstances, the outcome of contact situations could
only have been total replacement with no admixture. “Humans” would have seen
“Neandertals” as unsuitable non-human mates, and the cognitive superiority of
our ancestors meant that they would inevitably have prevailed in the competition
for territory and resources.
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11 João Zilhão
.  Paradigm lost
e empirical evidence generated by the last decade of research has falsied the
behavioural tenets of the “Human Revolution”. Ironically, at the same time as
archaeologists working in Africa were uncovering evidence supporting “modern”
cognition tens of millennia prior to the Out-of-Africa of Eves children (and
conceivably explaining it) (McBrearty & Brooks 2000), archaeologists working
in Europe were also uncovering evidence that, contrary to the postulates of
the “Human Revolution, complex and sophisticated cognitive and intellectual
capabilities were also apparent in the material culture of Eurasian Neandertals
(d’Errico et al. 1998, 2003a; Zilhão and d’Errico 1999; Zilhão 2001, 2006a, 2006b,
2007; d’Errico 2003; Conard 2008).
For instance, excavations carried out between 1994 and 1997 in a German
brown coal mine near Schöningen yielded three 400,000-year-old wooden
artefacts of great signicance (ieme 1997). Long and pointed, they were made
from the base of individual spruce trees, with the maximum thickness and weight
at the front and long tails that taper towards the proximal end. In all these respects,
they resemble the javelins of eld-and-track competitions, suggesting use as
projectile weapons rather than thrusting spears. ey further imply that the laws
of ballistics underlying the shape of modern javelins had already been mastered by
the founding fathers of the Neandertal lineage.
Further evidence for sophisticated crasmanship comes from Neumark-
Nord, another German brown coal mining site. Chemical analysis of organic
residue adhering to a int ake recovered in levels dated to more than 100ka
showed it to be an extract of oak bark macerated in water, of a kind used
until the ethnographic present in the tanning of hides for the manufacture of
water-proof clothing and shoe wear (Meller 2003). In the 1930s, a nearby site,
the Ilsenhöhle rock shelter, had already yielded a few bone awls from the time
of the latest Neandertals, around 40 ka (Hülle 1977). Combined, this evidence
suggested a long tradition of hide working for the manufacture of clothes and
other equipment.
is should come as no surprise. Good-quality articial insulation was
a pre-requisite for survival in Ice Age central Europe, where, considering the
wind-chill eect, average winter temperatures ranged between –20 and –30ºC.
ermoregulatory models (Aiello & Wheeler 2003) show that the minimum
external temperature Neandertals would have been able to support if dressed in a
modern business suit was –24ºC. In the absence of even such basic level of clothing,
only a thickness of body fat below the skin in excess of 3 cm could have provided
equivalent protection. e weight of such fat, however, would be of some 50 kg, an
amount that would leave an 80 kg Neandertal very little le for muscle, bone and
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Chapter 6. e emergence of language, art and symbolic thinking 11
other tissue; or, if added to the 80 kg of a lean, muscular body, would transform the
average 1.65 m tall male Neandertal into the archetypal obese, unable to procure
his own subsistence in a society that lacked cash, automobiles, and shopping malls.
e implication is clear: like present-day subarctic peoples, Neandertals must have
had good quality clothing as well as all the other gear without which survival in
such environments is impossible.
Further and more telling evidence that Neandertals were quite good at
Chemistry came from yet another German brown coal mining site, Königsaue.
In 1963–64, salvage excavations yielded two fragments of birch bark pitch used
for stone tool haing, one of which still bore a ngerprint of the Neandertal that
manipulated it. ese items have since been directly dated by radiocarbon to more
than 45 ka, and a study of their composition (Koller et al. 2001) showed that they
are not unmodied natural products, such as the bitumen used in the Near East
for the same haing purposes since at least 200 ka. In fact, they are a synthetic
raw material, the rst ever in human history. ey were produced through a
several hour-long smouldering process requiring a strict manufacture protocol:
under exclusion of oxygen, and at tightly controlled temperatures, between 340
and 400°C.
is evidence suggests that, in fact, Neandertals were cognitively as well
endowed as we are. But what about their biology? Were they in fact a separate
species? And was the reason for their eventual extinction somehow related to their
biological separateness?
Careful consideration of the mtDNA evidence shows that such notions
have little basis. Given that contemporary populations of chimpanzees are
more diverse than all living humans and Neandertals put together (Gagneux
et al. 1999), the parsimonious interpretation of the genetic evidence is that, by
Primate standards, present-day humans are abnormally homogeneous, not that
Neandertals were a dierent species. In fact, the most recent synthesis of the
history of modern human dispersals based on mtDNA places the immigration
of the bearers of the oldest extant European variants (haplotypes H, I and U) at
some 30 ka (Forster 2004). Since anatomically modern people are documented
in Europe since at least 40 ka (Zilhão et al. 2007), it follows that the mtDNA
variants characteristic of those original settlers must be as extinct as those of the
Neandertals. Obviously, this does not mean that such early European moderns
belonged to a species dierent from our own, and one that went extinct without
descent. By the same token, no such inferences can be made for the Neandertals
on the basis of the absence of their mtDNA among living humans. e take-
home message is that the mtDNA of present-day Europeans reects recent
demographic history, not the remote interactions (or lack thereof) between
African sapiens and non-African archaics.
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1 João Zilhão
In short: e pattern of mtDNA homogeneity among extant humans is
consistent with a recent origin for modern humans, but it does not rule out the
possibility that Neandertals and other archaic groups contributed to the gene pool
of subsequent populations. at such contributions indeed occurred is otherwise
apparent in the nuclear genome, where as much as 80% of its loci carry evidence
of the assimilation of genetic material from non-African archaic people (Eswaran
et al. 2005). One example is the microcephalin gene, involved in the control of
brain size during development, whose adaptive allele, which occurs in 70% of
today’s humans, seems to have introgressed from an archaic lineage, most probably
the Neandertals, sometime around 37 ka (Evans et al. 2006). Most recently, the
results of the Neandertal genome project also brought additional support to these
ndings by showing that Neandertals contributed something like 1–4% of the
nuclear DNA of present-day humans, implying signicant interbreeding at the
time of contact (Green et al. 2010).
ese developments contradict the notion that Neandertals were a dierent
species and show that, even if they had been, they were so close that admixture
at the time of contact was inevitable, and did happen. In fact, a recent study
of species intersterility versus time of divergence (Holliday 2006) suggests that
the whole debate concerning the taxonomic status of Neandertals is a lot like
the proverbial Byzantine argument about the sex of the angels. e study shows
that, among the many lineages of mammals for which fossil or molecular data
are available, 1.4 million years is the minimum amount of time for reproductive
separation to emerge between two branches splitting from a recent common
ancestor. is minimum was observed among gazelles. Among hominins,
however, the interval between generations is at least four times longer. e
implication is one of no reproductive isolation between contemporary lineages
of hominins separated by less than ve to six million years of divergence. Such
a length of time corresponds to the entire evolutionary life span of the hominin
family, and is at least ten times the duration of the interval separating the
Neandertal/ modern splitting event from the period of contact in Europe. By
Mammal standards, therefore, Neandertals were not, and could not have been, a
dierent biological species.
.  Paradigm found
Until about ten years ago, the presence of ornaments at late Neandertal sites was
acknowledged by supporters of the “Human Revolution” but disregarded as a
by-product of “imitation without understanding” of modern human behaviours
observed in contact situations (Stringer & Gamble 1993). e following analogy
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Chapter 6. e emergence of language, art and symbolic thinking 11
was famously proposed by a distinguished British archaeologist to make the point:
“if a child puts on a string of pearls, she is probably doing this to imitate her mother,
not to symbolize her wealth, emphasize her social status, or attract the opposite
sex” (Mellars 1999).
Research carried out since 1998 on the Châtelperronian culture of France
and northern Spain has dramatically changed the picture. At the Grotte du
Renne, in France, the Châtelperronian levels yielded bone awls identical to those
from the Ilsenhöle, but with three dierences (d’Errico et al. 1998, 2003b): they
came in larger numbers; some featured regular decorative patterns; and they
were associated with body ornaments (Figure 4). ese nds were published in
the early 1960s (Leroi-Gourhan 1961, 1964), but their signicance was impaired
by doubts on the authorship of the Châtelperronian. In 1979, however, a
Neandertal skeleton was found in a Châtelperronian context at the French site of
St.-Césaire (Lévêque & Vandermeersch 1980), and, in 1996, the association was
conrmed for the fragmentary remains recovered at the Grotte du Renne itself
(Hublin et al. 1996). Eventually, it became clear that the Châtelperronian, with
its suite of personal ornaments, was an independent Neandertal development
predating modern human immigration by several millennia (Zilhão 2001, 2006b,
2007; d’Errico 2003). e conclusion that Neandertal society was symbolically
organized is further strengthened by results from use-wear analyses of hundreds
of chunks of black pigment from another and even earlier French cave site, the
Pech de l’Azé. ese analyses concluded that they were pencils used for body
painting (Soressi & d’Errico 2007).
a b c
1 cm
Figure 4. Pierced and grooved pendants made of animal bone and teeth, the most common
personal ornaments of Europe’s late Neandertals, all from basal Châtelperronian level X of
the Grotte du Renne (Arcy-sur-Cure, France): (a-b) fox canines; (c) bison incisor; (d) lateral
phalange of reindeer
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1 João Zilhão
In short, late Neandertals had attained a level of cultural achievement identical
to that documented among their African contemporaries. What happened when
these two fully symbolic cultural traditions eventually met should be treated,
therefore, without preconception. Did they exchange genes and memes? Or was
mutual avoidance the rule, resulting in the extinction of one of the sides?
e answers must be sought in the biology and culture of the post-contact
populations, those of the earliest modern humans of Europe (Trinkaus 2007).
If we nd no Neandertal contributions in those post-contact populations, then
we must conclude that interaction and admixture were trivial or non-existent.
But, if Neandertal contributions are indeed apparent, then we must conclude
that signicant interaction and admixture occurred, regardless of whether such
contributions were or were not subsequently lost.
Figure 5. e Lagar Velho child skeleton
In 1998, the discovery and excavation of the 30,000-year-old burial of a ve
year old child in the Lagar Velho rock shelter, Portugal, provided hard evidence
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Chapter 6. e emergence of language, art and symbolic thinking 1
for a hypothesis that a group of scholars had been entertaining for many years:
that populations of the African lineage spreading into Europe would have inter-
bred with the local Neandertals, whose disappearance would have been largely a
process of assimilation, not extinction without descent (Zilhão & Trinkaus 2002).
In fact, this child (Figure 5) featured an anatomical mosaic mixing characteris-
tics for the most part modern, such as a clear, prominent chin and a high cranial
vault, with characteristics reminiscent or even distinctive of the Neandertals and
other archaic Eurasian populations, such as the robusticity of the leg bones, the
arctic, cold-adapted body proportions, and several minor features in the skull, the
mandible and the dentition. ese features are known to be genetically inherited,
so their presence indicates a part-Neandertal ancestry for the child. Soon aer
the Lagar Velho discovery, in 2003–2005, the Romanian cave of Oase was to pro-
vide additional evidence – the mandible of a young adult and the near complete
cranium of an adolescent, dated to 40 ka and at present Europe’s earliest modern
human fossils (Trinkaus et al. 2003; Rougier et al. 2007) – in support of this notion
(Figure 6).
e archaeological evidence supports this scenario. e Protoaurignacian
culture of western and central Europe is contemporary with the Oase fossils
and, as such, the rst cultural entity that reliably can be assigned to European
early moderns. e personal ornaments of the Protoaurignacian are consistent
with this notion. For the most part, they are made of the same small marine
shell beads of diverse taxonomy but identical basket-shaped morphology found
among modern human cultures of the Near East and Africa, where they go back
to some 100 ka (cf. Figure 1). By comparison with these cultures, however, the
Protoaurignacian also features some novelties, such as pierced animal teeth,
namely of red deer and fox. ese kinds of pendants are completely unknown
in Africa and the Near East prior to the time of contact. But they are precisely
the types of ornaments that characterize such pre-contact Neandertal-associated
cultures as the Châtelperronian (cf. Figure 4). e parsimonious explanation for
these elements of discontinuity with the African/Levantine tradition of personal
ornamentation can only be that modern humans acquired them from the
indigenous, Neandertal societies where such novel elements originally emerged
(Zilhão 2007).
.  Conclusion
e implication of these nds is that, in their strict, original formulations,
Multiregional Evolution and Mitochondrial Eve are now both obsolete
views of the tempo and mode of human evolution. e palaeontological and
archaeological evidence favours Assimilation models and refutes the notion that
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1 João Zilhão
Neandertals were a dierent species (Figure 7). Even for hard-line supporters
of the Neandertal’s fundamental separateness, the evidence still carries the twin
implications that (1) archaeologically visible manifestations of fully symbolic
sapiens behaviour emerged independently among dierent human species and,
(2) that the biological/genetical foundations for that behaviour must therefore
have existed in the human genus prior to the split between the African and
European lineages.
Figure 6. e Oase fossils. Top: the Oase 2 cranium. Bottom: the Oase 1 mandible
So, even in the framework of multi- rather than single-species views of human
evolution, the corollary of the last decade of empirical discoveries is that explana-
tions of the emergence of “behavioural modernity” as a simple by-product of a
putative speciation event in the late Middle Pleistocene of Africa are refuted – the
“hardware” requirements for symbolic thinking must have been in place before half
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Chapter 6. e emergence of language, art and symbolic thinking 1
a million years ago, when the Neandertal lineage began to diverge. is conclusion
has two additional corollaries: rstly, that the search for the genetic and cognitive
processes underlying the emergence of language and symbolism in the human
lineage needs to be refocused on aspects of the dierentiation and evolution of
Homo erectus people between two and one million years ago, secondly, that the
much later appearance of personal ornaments represents a qualitative leap in
culture, reecting the operation of demographic and social factors (Gilman 1984;
Shennan 2001; Powell et al. 2009).
Single species
with geographic
Diusion, admixture,
local population
Multiple species
Cladogenesis, range
Single species
Anagenetic evolution
Time t
Time t1
Time t2
Time t
Time t1
Time t2
Inconsistent with
the chronological
Inconsistent with
the paleontological
Figure 7. Dierent models for the explanation of the replacement of Neandertals by modern
humans in Europe
e commonplace notion that the rst modern humans in Europe were
“astonishingly precocious artists” (Sinclair 2003: 774) whose superior cognition
suced to explain the demise of the Neandertals is also in contradiction with the
facts. e documented artistic skills of the earliest European moderns are identical
to those documented in late Neandertal cultural contexts, and consist simply of
patterned markings applied to bone tools with decorative or functional purposes.
e earliest gurative art (the cave paintings and ivory gurines from France and
southern Germany), in fact, post-dates by ve millennia the rst archaeological or
palaeontological indicators of modern human immigration (Zilhão 2007). Much
as with personal ornaments, the explanation for these novel developments must
therefore be sought in transformations occurring at that time in European society,
not in the human brain.
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1 João Zilhão
e ethnographic record abundantly documents that rock art primarily
functions as a way of embodying places with economic, ideological or social
signicance, and the thousands of open air petroglyphs of the Côa Valley, in
Portugal (Zilhão et al. 1997; Baptista 2009), show that the same holds true for
the Palaeolithic period (Figure 8).
Figure 8. Two examples of the 17 km-long Palaeolithic rock art complex of the Côa
Valley, Portugal: top, Rock no. 6 of Penascosa, bottom, Rock no. 1 of Canada do Inferno
(aer Baptista 2009, photos by P. Guimarães, courtesy of Parque Arqueológico do
Vale do Côa)
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Chapter 6. e emergence of language, art and symbolic thinking 1
us, the parsimonious explanation for why art only appears in the archaeo-
logical record around 35 ka is that only then did the need arise for systems of social
identication/dierentiation extending beyond the individual to include the land-
scapes and resources claimed as territory by the dierent groups to whom people
advertised their allegiance through the use of body ornaments. Sculpted gurines,
in turn, are likely to have represented manifestations of the same phenomenon in
the personal and domestic arenas of behaviour.
e need for such systems can easily be explained as a consequence of
adaptive success, with technological innovation leading to demographic growth
and implying both increased inter-group competition and increased regulation
of that competition. In such a context, it is easy to understand the adaptive value
of the emergence of ceremonial behaviours addressing issues of property and
rights over resources, and of the development of myths and religious beliefs
relating such rights to real or ideal ancestors. erein lies the origins of art, not
in an evolutionarily late mutation endowing modern humans with the capacity
for symbolic thinking. e corresponding “hardware, in fact, must have been in
place as soon as the size and shape of the brain case entered modern ranges of
variation and the cultural record documents behaviours that require language,
i.e. symbolic thinking by denition. e palaeontological record concurs in
suggesting that such a Rubicon had already been crossed by half a million years
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... The debate amongst researchers was carried on for decades by referring to various evidence to get closer to an answer (D'Errico and Villa 1997;Ambrose 1998;Mcbrearty and Brooks 2000;Wadley 2001;Vanhaeren et al. 2006;Bouzouggar et al. 2007;D'Errico et al. 2009;Zilhão 2011). ...
... For many years, the onset of artistic activities was attributed to the arrival of anatomically modern humans (AMH) in Europe (Bar-yosef 2002;Zilhão 2011;García-Díez and Ochoa 2019); today, we know that this is very much backdated. In fact, in recent years, the African origin of the symbolic material culture 1 3 162 Page 2 of 18 of our species is widely accepted (d'Errico et al. 2005;Zilhão 2007;Bouzouggar et al. 2007; Kuhn et al. 2009;Shell et al. 2009;Vanhaeren et al. 2013). ...
Full-text available
Because of their inherent symbolic significance, personal ornaments gained a key role in the scientific debate regarding the emergence and evolution of symbolic behaviour; the presumed Acheulean beads discovered in the nineteenth century in northern Europe’s sites are considered crucial evidence of this. The fossils of the sponge Porosphaera globularis, because of their morphological characteristics, have been interpreted by some archaeologists as the starting point of this evolutionary path. In this work, the largest collection of Porosphaera globularis specimens is analysed, after remaining unpublished to this day. This was originally found in the French site of Saint-Acheul and preserved at the Civic Museums of Modena. An integrated analysis was carried out to understand whether these fossils were indeed used as beads; results revealed that they were actually not used as ornaments. This suggests the importance of finding strong arguments and evidence to support theories about the development of cognitive abilities in the genus Homo.
... According to some lines of argument, such ornaments were developed before the incursion of Homo sapiens in Europe (Zilhão 2013), reflecting either independent development or the importing of ideas and concepts within the Neanderthal world (d 'Errico 2003;Zilhão 2007). Consequently, advocates of the multiregional model support the thesis that the same cognitive and biological bases were present in humans since the Middle Pleistocene (Speth 2004;Zilhão 2007Zilhão , 2011aZilhão , 2011b, and hence modern and archaic populations were cognitively equivalent (for reviews, see d 'Errico and Stringer 2011;Harrold 2009;Nowell 2010). ...
... Evidence of body adornment in late Neanderthal archaeological sites is mostly represented by shell beads (Zilhão et al. 2010;Zilhão 2011b), perforated bone pendants (Zilhão 2012, 38), and raptor talons presumably adopted for ornamental reasons (Radovčić et al. 2015;Romandini et al. 2014). These artifacts share physical properties that make them suitable for visual display, and the creation of compositional jewels. ...
Evidence of feather extraction from scavenging birds by late Neanderthal populations, supposedly for ornamental reasons, has been recently used to bolster the case for Neanderthal symbolism and cognitive equivalence with modern humans. This argument resonates with the idea that the production and long-term maintenance of body ornaments necessarily require a cluster of abilities defined here as the material symbolism package. This implies the construction of abstract meanings, which are then mentally imposed to artifacts and socially shared through full-blown mindreading, assisted by a meta-representational language. However, a set of radical enactive abilities, mainly direct social perception and situated concepts, is sufficient to explain the emergence of ornamental feathers without necessarily involving the material symbolism package. The embodied social structure created by body ornaments, augmented through behavioral-contextual narratives, suffices to explain even the long-term maintenance of this practice without mentalism. Costly neurocentric assumptions conceiving the material symbolism package as a homuncular adaptation are eschewed by applying a non-symbolic interpretation of feathers as cognitive scaffolds. It will be concluded that the presence of body adornment traditions in the Neanderthal archaeological record does not warrant the cognitive equivalence with modern humans, for it does not constrain a meta-representational level of meaning.
... Such narratives build on the evidence that questions recent "modern" origins for language and cognition only to conclude that such capacities were present in at least the last common ancestors we share with neanderthals and denisovans. Such approaches (Zilhão, 2011;Dediu and Levinson, 2013;Conde-Valverde et al., 2021) build on the renewed appreciation for the complexity of neanderthal behavior (Wragg Sykes, 2020), derived anatomy (D'Anastasio et al., 2013), as well as the presence of genetic fingerprints associated with features traditionally associated with "cognitive modernity" or enhanced cognition (Enard et al., 2002;Florio et al., 2018). ...
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This paper makes three interconnected claims: (i) the “human condition” cannot be captured by evolutionary narratives that reduce it to a recent ‘cognitive modernity', nor by narratives that eliminates all cognitive differences between us and out closest extinct relatives, (ii) signals from paleogenomics, especially coming from deserts of introgression but also from signatures of positive selection, point to the importance of mutations that impact neurodevelopment, plausibly leading to temperamental differences, which may impact cultural evolutionary trajectories in specific ways, and (iii) these trajectories are expected to affect the language phenotypes, modifying what is being learned and how it is put to use. In particular, I hypothesize that these different trajectories influence the development of symbolic systems, the flexible ways in which symbols combine, and the size and configurations of the communities in which these systems are put to use.
... The use and manipulation of earth minerals into usable pigments has long been at the center of models for the emergence of modern behaviors in hominin species (McBrearty and Brooks, 2000;Henshilwood and Marean, 2003;d'Errico and Henshilwood, 2011;Zilhão, 2011;d'Errico et al., 2003;Nowell, 2010;Wadley, 2001;Wadley, 2003;Wadley, 2006). Of the earth pigments used by hominins, red ochre (a series of rocks, clays, and sediments containing varying amounts and mineral phases of iron oxides/hydroxides) is one of the most frequently reported materials and was perhaps the most widely used pigment-producing material in ancient contexts (Dart, 1975;Wreschner, 1981;Velo and Kehoe, 1990;O'Connor and Fankhauser, 2001;Bernatchez, 2008;Henshilwood et al., 2009;Watts, 2009;Roebroeks et al., 2012;Salomon et al., 2012;Hodgskiss, 2012;Dayet et al., 2016;Zipkin, 2015;Brooks et al., 2016;Hodgskiss and Wadley, 2017;Rosso et al., 2017). ...
Symbolic cognition—the ability to produce and use symbols, including (but not limited to) linguistic symbols—has often been considered a hallmark of human achievement. Given its importance, symbolic cognition has been a major topic of interest in many academic disciplines including anthropology, archeology, and the cognitive sciences.1–6 Paleolithic rock art holds vast potential for under- standing the early roots of symbolically mediated behavior. Specifi- cally, geographic and temporal differences in parietal motifs across sites may provide important evidence about the sociocognitive processes that occurred in the deep past of our lineage, how they varied across groups, and how they changed over time. However, the fragmentary nature of the rock art record often makes direct inferences about past symbolic behaviors difficult to assert. Additionally, because scholars working within different disciplines may differ in their interests, theories, methodologies, epistemologies, and terminology, interdisciplinary dialog can be challenging. If we accept the challenge, however, we believe that interdisciplinary dialogs can increase our understanding of this important topic. Through interdisciplinary approaches we can, for instance, integrate information from dating and materials used, with insights into the particular conditions and sociocultural contexts in which the art could have been made and experienced.
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This paper reviews the debate about behavioral modernity in our species, listing counterexamples to the thesis that there was a dramatic change to the minds of Cro-Magnon sapiens in Europe in the Upper Paleolithic. It is argued that we were probably behaviorally modern from about 150,000 years ago, and that aspects of this mentality were apparent in developments in tool technologies and hunting practices across the prior Homo lineage. Key behaviors expressive of behavioral modernity include practical reasoning about the past and future and role-differentiated rights-based cooperation, which are more obvious in their effects than is the vague but much-used notion of symbolic thinking. Behavioral modernity leads to technological innovation but is not sufficient to maintain such innovations in face of population loss and environmental instability, which along with the vagaries of preservation explains why the archaeological record of behavioral modernity in our species is patchy until the Upper Paleolithic.
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Inferring and explaining cultural patterns and the ways in which human groups relate and interact over large spans of time or space is one of the biggest challenges for archaeologists. When dealing with either the remote past or the present, researchers struggle to learn about the conditions and mechanisms by which cultural traits originate, move, change, and disappear. The use of phylogenetic methods, originated in evolutionary biology to measure relatedness between species, can help to make significant advances toward those aims. This introduction maps the field of cultural phylogenetics, considers its potential for archaeological research, and summarizes the proposals laid out by the contributors of this book.
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This paper argues that visual art coevolved with typically human ways of social organization and cooperation strategies. My argument, in brief, is that Late Pleistocene human groups became organised in band societies that established networks of indirect reciprocal cooperation, which favoured cultural strategies of individual recognition such as social markers, e.g. styles of personal ornamentation. These early forms of visual art, by conveying information about social identity, became important in recalling and assessing individual interactions in cooperative networks. I also argue that as a cultural strategy, visual art could have been adaptive by reducing risk of aggression and increasing resource acquisition through exchange. As other evolved cultural traits, like tool-making and cooking, visual art too could have had an important impact on shaping modern human cognition and behaviour.
In this article, I present a substantive proposal about the timing and nature of the final stage of the evolution of full human language, the transition from so-called “protolanguage” to language, and on the origins of a simple protolanguage with structure and displaced reference; a proposal that depends on the idea that the initial expansion of communicative powers in our lineage involved a much expanded role for gesture and mime. But though it defends a substantive proposal, the article also (perhaps more importantly) defends and illustrates a methodological proposal too. I argue that language is a special case of a more general phenomenon—cumulative cultural evolution—and while we rarely have direct information about communication, we have more direct information about the cumulative cultural evolution of technical skill, ecological strategies, and social complexity. These same factors also enable us to make a reasonable estimate of the intergenerational social learning capacities of these communities (on which rich communication depends) and of the communicative demands these communities face. For example, we can, at least tentatively, identify forms of cooperation that are stable only if third party information is transmitted widely, cheaply, and accurately. So we can use these more direct markers of information accumulation to locate, in broad terms, the period in our evolutionary history during which we became lingual.
Chapter 9 considers what the evidence suggesting health-related care practice seen in the remains of two Neandertals, La Chapelle-aux-Saints 1 and La Ferrassie 1, may indicate about behavioural complexity in the European Upper Middle Palaeolithic. This chapter also illustrates how bioarchaeology of care analysis copes with incomplete and ambiguous evidence (from both a bioanthropological and archaeological perspective) when attempting to infer and interpret the provision of care - a situation commonly encountered in this area of research. This case study is particularly important because it demonstrates the capacity of the bioarchaeology of care approach to help address some long-standing and fundamental questions concerning cognition and behaviour in an earlier species.
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Twenty-third Kroon’s Lecture (Dutch Academy of Sciences)
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Preface In August of 1998, the two of us participated in the first Gibraltar conference on the Neandertals and modern human origins, held to celebrate the sesquicentennial of the discovery of the Forbes’ Quarry Neandertal cranium. At that conference, which integrated various aspects of Late Pleistocene human ecology, behavior and biology, the focus seemed to keep coming back to the two questions which have plagued European Late Pleistocene paleoanthropology for much of the past century. How similar were the Neandertals to early modern humans in their behavior and adaptive patterns, and how closely related were these two groups of humans? Since southern Iberia appeared, in 1998, to be the last refugium of the Neandertals, the focus of the conference, on both of these general issues and the natures of the Late Pleistocene changes in Iberia, seemed to bring the various questions into focus, if not any closer to resolution. After the conference, one of us (ET) accompanied the other (JZ) to Portugal to view the first of the Middle Paleolithic human remains from the Gruta da Oliviera (a manual middle phalanx from the fifth ray) and to discuss possible further human paleontological work in the context of ongoing archeological excavations in the Almonda karstic complex. It was a pleasant couple of days that ended with a casual agreement to continue the collaboration should further and interesting Paleolithic human remains be found. Little did we expect what would emerge less than three months later. The discovery of the Abrigo do Lagar Velho and the child’s burial in late November of 1998 and the subsequent salvage excavation during December and early January 1999 (see Chapter 2) was initially carried out largely in secret, since the site was unprotected and there was fear of damage to the skeleton by curious but poorly informed onlookers. However, after it was announced by the Portuguese media on December 25, every effort was made to make information on the site, the burial and skeleton available to both the public and the profession. Indeed, other than the normal restrictions dictated by excavation, laboratory cleaning and reassembly, and curatorial concerns regarding the fragile specimens, we have made an effort to be as open as possible about the remains and the site, to colleagues and the general public. It is in the context of our belief that paleontological data should be made available as soon as is reasonably possible that we have conceived of the current volume on the Abrigo do Lagar Velho and its Gravettian human remains. It is less than four years since the site was first discovered, and less than three years since all of the scattered cranial pieces of the child were recovered from the rockshelter. Moreover, extended excavations of the site have continued each year, with additional data on the geology, paleoecology and archeology of the preserved levels. For these reasons, our current study of both the site and the skeleton are not exhaustive — such a detailed level of analysis would take decades to be fully accomplished. However, the research has reached the point at which we feel that we have reliable information and inferences to present. This volume is the result. In the excavation and analysis of the Abrigo do Lagar Velho, it was apparent to us from the beginning that any such project required a variety of expertises to produce a worthwhile result. In order to accomplish this, we put together a team, with JZ being concerned with the excavation and analysis of the site and ET taking responsibility for the assembly and analysis of the human skeleton. Through all of this, absolutely critical work was undertaken and overseen by Cidália Duarte, who both excavated the skeleton in the field exquisitely (who else has excavated pedal phalangeal epiphyses identified as to digit from a Paleolithic burial?) and took care of the skeleton and all of the logistics surrounding its analysis in Lisbon. Even though she is not a co-editor on this volume and remains an author on only two chapters, she probably contributed more to the analysis of the skeleton than any one of us. The contributions of the others are evident in their authorships of the various chapters in the volume. The volume is divided into two sections, one concerned with the site and the other with the skeleton, preceded by a brief history of work at the site and on the skeleton and followed by discussions of the human phylogenetic and behavioral implications of the remains. Even though fieldwork continues at the site, principally in Gravettian levels in the western portion of the shelter, we have limited the discussions here to those concerned with the overall structure of the prehistoric deposits, the human burial and skeletal remains, and the paleoenvironmental, archeological and chronological contexts of the remains. In addition, it was decided that the comparative frameworks employed for the description of the site and its contents (since all description is by definition comparative) would be largely limited to currently available data and interpretive frameworks. In a few cases the contributors have engaged in the collection of additional comparative data specific to this project, but the vast majority of the comparative frameworks have been put together from the published literature, personal experience, and data and ideas shared by colleagues. It is expected that we, and others, will pursue further a number of the issues raised by this site, refining and enlarging upon the results presented here. Ironically, it is the one aspect of Late Pleistocene paleoanthropology, human phylogeny, that was furthest from our primary interests which has sparked the pronounced and ongoing interest in “the Lapedo child.” Although both of us had written extensively on the transition from the Neandertals to early modern humans in Europe, and its complex interrelationships with the Middle-to-Upper Paleolithic transition, we had both been concerned principally with the behavioral dynamics of the two human groups, asking questions about the natures and the degrees of behavioral similarities and differences between them. Phylogeny had entered into those discussions, primarily to the extent that it had a bearing on the probable patterns of interactions in time and space between the two groups of Late Pleistocene humans. Following on this train of research, when we proposed in 1999 that the Lapedo child, Lagar Velho 1, exhibited evidence of Neandertal-modern human admixture in Iberia, our primary thrust was what it told us about the degree of similarity of their behavioral patterns that enabled them to regard each other as potential mates. Yet, the intensity of the debate concerning whether Neandertals and early modern humans had interbred, both in the professional and public arenas, led us to realize that these are issues about which people feel very strongly. However, unlike most academic arguments that are primarily concerned with the reputations of the scholars involved, this one touched deeply on a concern that went far beyond academic rivalries and previous position statements. It became increasingly apparent to us that it confronted the issue of how special we, as modern humans, actually are, how distinct we are (or are not) from humans who were not quite “us.” The Gravettian child from the Lapedo Valley cannot, despite our efforts, resolve that question. Yet, it is our hope that our presentation of its remains and the contents of the site into which it was buried after its untimely death 25 millennia ago will contribute a little to our understanding of the processes that led to the emergence of early modern humans, and of the people who were involved in that process.
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With a sample of 94 Pleistocene cranial capacities between the time period of 1.8 Ma and 50 Ka now known, we consider the evolution of cranial capacity in Homo , with the null hypothesis that the changes over time are a result of one process. We employ a new method that uses a resampling approach to address the limitations imposed on the methods of previous studies. To test the null hypothesis, we examine the distribution of changes in adjacent temporal samples and ask whether there are differences between earlier and later samples. Our analyses do not reject the hypothesis of a single process of brain size change, but they are incompatible with an interpretation of punctuated equilibrium during this period. The results of this paper are difficult to reconcile with the case for cladogenesis in the Homo lineage during the Pleistocene.
A comparative analysis of the bone awls from the Châtelperronian and Aurignacian levels of the Grotte du Renne at Arcy-sur-Cure is conducted with the aim of establishing the cultural affiliation of these tools and identifying distinctive technological and functional features for the two assemblages. The studied material consists of fifty Châtelperronian and nine Aurignacien awls presenting an excellent state of preservation. The largest collection of Châtelperronian awls comes from the lowest (level X) of the three levels attributed to this technocomplex, and the awls from Châtelperronian and Aurignacian horizons show a spatial distribution which is different and coherent with that observed for diagnostic Châtelperronian and Aurignacian finds. This contradicts the hypothesis that the presence of bone tools in the Châtelperronian levels is the result of a reworking of sediments. Awls are, in both assemblages, made out of the limb bones of horse, reindeer and carnivores. Common features in the choice of blanks include the use of naturally pointed bones, such as accessory horse metapodials, shaft fragments derived from limb bones broken for marrow extraction, as well as elongated proximal fragments probably obtained by longitudinally splitting metapodials and radii. Châtelperronian awls show a more diverse repertoire of blank types (e.g. use of carnivore fibulae and of massive epiphyseal fragments obtained by fracture) and variable degrees of shaping than Aurignacian ones. Nine Châtelperronian tools are marked with sets of notches or v-shaped motifs, while only one Aurignacian piece bears a decoration consisting of a set of crosses. Comparative microscopic analyses of archeological and experimental tools indicate that the awls of the Châtelperronian were intensively used and produced hundreds, more likely thousands, of perforations on a variety of soft materials, probably different types of skins. Worn tools were resharpened by rubbing the points on grinding stones and tiny awl fragments were reused until total exhaustion.
The Chauvet Cave is original from several points of view. The animals most often painted or engraved in it are scarce in cave art. The techniques used by the artists were superbly mastered. They made use of perspective and stump drawing, they scraped the walls or the outlines of some animals to enhance their drawings. Radiocarbon datings are coherent and set some of those paintings around 31 000 BP. -from English summary