Scientists claim to have the first persuasive evidence that Neanderthals wore “body paint” 50,000 years ago.
The team report in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) that shells containing pigment residues were Neanderthal make-up containers.
Scientists unearthed the shells at two archaeological sites in the Murcia province of southern Spain.
The team says its find buries “the view of Neanderthals as half-wits” and shows they were capable of symbolic thinking.
Professor Joao Zilhao, the archaeologist from Bristol University in the UK, who led the study, said that he and his team had examined shells that were used as containers to mix and store pigments.
Black sticks of the pigment manganese, which may have been used as body paint by Neanderthals, have previously been discovered in Africa.
“[But] this is the first secure evidence for their use of cosmetics,” he told BBC News. “The use of these complex recipes is new. It’s more than body painting.”
The scientists found lumps of a yellow pigment, that they say was possibly used as a foundation.
They also found red powder mixed up with flecks of a reflective brilliant black mineral.
Some of the sculpted, brightly coloured shells may also have been worn by Neanderthals as jewellery.
Until now it had been thought by many researchers that only modern humans wore make-up for decoration and ritual purposes.
There was a time in the Upper Palaeolithic period when Neanderthals and humans may have co-existed. But Professor Zilhao explained that the findings were dated at 10,000 years before this “contact”.
“To me, it’s the smoking gun that kills the argument once and for all,” he told BBC News.
“The association of these findings with Neanderthals is rock-solid and people have to draw the associations and bury this view of Neanderthals as half-wits.”
Professor Chris Stringer, a palaeontologist from the Natural History Museum in London, UK, said: “I agree that these findings help to disprove the view that Neanderthals were dim-witted.
But, he added that evidence to that effect had been growing for at least the last decade.
“It’s very difficult to dislodge the brutish image from popular thinking,” Professor Stringer told BBC News. “When football fans behave badly, or politicians advocate reactionary views, they are invariably called ‘Neanderthal’, and I can’t see the tabloids changing their headlines any time soon.”