As early as 250,000 years ago, Neanderthals were mixing minerals such as haematite (ochre) and manganese with fluids to make red and black paints — presumably to decorate the body and clothing.
One of the most hotly debated questions in the history of Neanderthal research has been whether they created art. In the past few years, the consensus has become that they did, sometimes. But, like their relations at either end of the hominoid evolutionary tree, chimpanzees and Homo sapiens, Neanderthals’ behavior varied culturally from group to group and over time.
Their art was perhaps more abstract than the stereotypical figure and animal cave paintings Homo sapiens made after the Neanderthals disappeared about 30,000 years ago. But archaeologists are beginning to appreciate how creative Neanderthal art was in its own right.
The evolution of Neanderthals’ visual culture over time suggests their social structures were changing. They increasingly used pigments and ornaments to decorate their bodies. As I elaborate in my book, Homo Sapiens Rediscovered, Neanderthals adorned their bodies, perhaps as competition for group leadership became more sophisticated. Colors and ornaments conveyed messages about strength and power, helping individuals convince their contemporaries of their strength and suitability to lead.
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