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Scallop shell

36,500 years old

Cueva Antón, Murcia Province, southeastern Spain, 2008

(Courtesy João Zilhão)

When one of my team members, Tom O’Mahoney, pulled this scallop shell from sediment at Cueva Antón, a rock shelter in southeastern Spain occupied 100,000 to 35,000 years ago, I thought it was a fossil. But when I cleaned it back in my lab and saw that it had a hole in the middle and vivid orange coloring on the outside, I began to suspect that it was something more. I ran down the hall to the geology building where paleontologists confirmed my suspicion—the shell had been collected on a beach relatively recently (tens of thousands and not millions of years ago) and then decorated with yellow and red iron oxide minerals.

The only people living in Spain at the time were Neanderthals, long thought to have been cognitively inferior to modern humans. But I believe that this shell was worn as a pendant and, along with others found at a cave called Cueva de los Aviones about 40 miles away, ends this misconception once and for all. Together, they provide firm evidence that, 10,000 years before modern humans arrived in Europe, Neanderthals were not half-wits. They engaged in the same kinds of symbolic behaviors as modern humans, such as using personal adornment or wearing pigments to represent ideas or identity, or for ritual activities.

Tens of thousands of years after the last Neanderthal in the region died, medieval pilgrims traveling to the sacred site of Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain to visit the tomb of St. James also wore scallop shells, which symbolized the martyred saint. Although the Neanderthal who left this shell at Cueva Antón is unlikely to have been on his way to Santiago, there is little doubt that he or she was, in some ways, not so different from the medieval pilgrims who used the same shells to advertise their faith.

João Zilhão, University of Bristol