‘Neanderthals shopped at stone-age Tiffany’s’ theory debunked

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

LONDON - In 1959 in the Grotte du Renne in central France, archaeologists found a wide range of ornaments and tools, indicating the existence of a stone-age Tiffany’s, but a new study has disproved that theory.

University of Oxford researchers have shown that the artefacts were jumbled up with Neanderthal teeth, suggesting that the Neanderthals made them some time between 35,000 and 40,000 years ago, reports New Scientist.

Thomas Higham of the University of Oxford used radiocarbon dating to nail down the ages of the remains. As one digs down, the age of the remains should increase, but it didn’t. Instead, the ages of the different objects are all over the place, suggesting that remains from different eras have got mixed up together.

One-third of the dated samples are statistical outliers, and this must tell us something about the confidence with which we ought to be associating the remains with one another. We think that the most likely explanation for the results is that our dates are reliable, but that we are dating materials that have moved after their original deposition, said Higham.

The tools and ornaments in the Grotte du Renne look like those made by anatomically modern humans, so we might expect that they - not Neanderthals - were the artistes.

The evidence from the Grotte du Renne constitutes by far the most comprehensive set of evidence in support of the use of ornaments by Neanderthals, and therefore is the most important dataset concerning Neanderthal cognitive abilities with respect to ornamentation and symbolism.

However, Francesco D’Errico of the University of Bordeaux, France, who has studied Neanderthal artefacts for many years, is still convinced by the evidence for Neanderthal jewellery from other sites.

According to him, the parsimonious reading of Higham’s results is that the idiosyncrasies are due to insufficient decontamination, rather than to significant reworking of the archaeological layers.

“In my view many of their results, in particular those from the lower layers of the site, do not represent the true ages of the dated objects, but are just minimum ages… So the findings cannot be interpreted as proof that a significant reworking took place at the site,” D’Errico said.

“So either the samples are contaminated and we can’t trust the dates, or the later inhabitants of the cave jumbled them up for us,” he added.

The study is published in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (ANI)

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