French excavation reveals Neanderthal 'creative side'

Neanderthals were much more advanced than has been thought, according to a new examination of finds from a famous cave site that indicates that the creatures designed and made their own jewellery.

It had been assumed ornaments found with their bones were "borrowed" from ancestors of modern humans, or copied. This is now believed to have been a mistake.

Neanderthals lived in Europe long before the early modern humans, Homo sapiens, 40,000 years ago. The two sub-species existed side-by-side for about 10,000 years, after which the Neanderthals vanished.

Research has shown that the two sub-species were genetically different. Neanderthals used stone tools, but experts are divided about whether they were capable of abstract thought, associated with signs of creativity, such as art works and decoration.

The new research centres on the Grotte de Fées, a cave at Châtelperron in central France, first excavated in 1840. The fossil evidence suggests a late population of Neanderthals returned to the cave after modern humans had been living there for some time.

This is thought to explain the sophisticated artefacts found with their remains. But, writing in an online edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, French and British scientists argue that the supposed evidence of late Neanderthal occupation was in fact "backdirt" from 19th century fossil hunting. They say the finds belonged to Neanderthals who lived there 44,000 years ago. That would mean they were making decorated bone points and items of jewellery before modern humans arrived in Europe from Africa.

Professor Joao Zilhao, from the University of Bristol, said the discovery had huge implications for views on European Neanderthals, and human evolution.

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