Physical Anthropology
A Neanderthal model at Zagros Paleolithic Museum, Kermanshah

250000 Years Ago Neanderthals Painted the Town Red

A Neanderthal model at Zagros Paleolithic Museum, Kermanshah
Terrence Aym's image for:
"250000 Years Ago Neanderthals Painted the Town Red"
Caption: A Neanderthal model at Zagros Paleolithic Museum, Kermanshah
Image by: ICHTO
© This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Surprised scientists unearthed solid evidence that a quarter million years ago Neanderthals were painting the town red—or at least their cavern homes.

The revelation came by accident during a research dig in the Netherlands where a team of archaeologists were searching for Neanderthal artifacts such as flint spearheads and carved bones.

Advanced X-ray technology reveals red paint

According to reports from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers detected tiny flakes of an an iron oxide metal called hematite that is often used as the basis for a red-hued liquid, or paint. The substance was found on the bones and flint fragments at an archaeological site located in Maastricht.

What is especially intriguing about the find is that not only does the pigment, known as red ochre, predate the accepted use of such materials by Neanderthals by many thousands of years, but suggests the sub-species of modern humans had a more advanced society, using red ochre to decorate their weapons, bodies, and to create art.

The red ochre may also have been used to repel insects and to medicate wounds.

The discovery adds weight to recent rethinks about Neanderthals and their society as being much more sophisticated than roaming bands of club swinging brutish cavemen.

Changing picture of Neanderthals and humans

Back in the 1990s, scientists' views about Neanderthals began to change. For almost a century Neanderthals were thought to be stupid, slow brutish humans that eventually died out, pushed aside by more advanced Cro-Magnon.

Breakthroughs in genetics permitted mitochondrial DNA to be traced back in animals, including humans. The DNA provided hard evidence that not only did the human race start much earlier than previously thought—as far back as 2.5 million years ago—but Neanderthals were a much more robust race and interbred with Cro-Magnon.

The interbreeding between races—that included a third offshoot of Man, the Denisovans that spread their DNA throughout what's now Asia—created a more robust Homo sapiens, an "archaic human admixture." This interbreeding "helped humans go global."

Recently, it was also discovered that Neanderthal DNA still exists in certain Siberian tribes.

The UK Daily Telegraph reports that team member Dr. Wil Roebroeks, of Leiden University in the Netherlands and his colleagues notes that late Neanderthals were known to use iron oxides regularly. The new discovery, however, pushed the metal's use back much further in time.

"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 Neanderthals. This is a non-local material that was imported to the site, possibly over dozens of kilometers," the team reported.

More about this author: Terrence Aym

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