Cavemen used make-up and other accessories to decorate themselves and dress up 50,000 years ago scientists have foundThe discovery of items including decorative purses challenges the widespread view that Neanderthals were much less intelligent than modern man, the researchers believe.
Scientists found pigment-stained and perforated marine shells, which they say were used as necklaces, from two caveman sites in Murcia, south-east Spain.
The analysis of lumps of red and yellow pigments found alongside suggest they were used in cosmetics.
The practice of body ornamentation is widely accepted by archaeologists as conclusive evidence for modern behaviour and symbolic thinking among early modern humans but has not been recognised in Neanderthals until now.
A Spondylus gaederopus shell from the same site contained residues of a reddish pigmentatious mass made of lepidocrocite mixed with ground bits of hematite and pyrite - suggesting the kind of inclusion 'for effect' that one would expect in a cosmetic preparation.
The choice of a Spondylus shell as the container for such a recipe is thought to relate to the attention-grabbing crimson, red, or violet colour and exuberant sculpture of these shells.
This has led to their symbolic, or ritual-related, collection in a variety of archaeological contexts worldwide.
Lead researcher João Zilhão, professor of Palaeolithic Archaeology at the University of Bristol, said: "This is the first secure evidence that, some 50,000 years ago ten millennia before modern humans are first recorded in Europe the behaviour of Neanderthals was symbolically organised."
"The evidence from the Murcian sites removes the last clouds of uncertainty concerning the modernity of the behaviour and cognition of the last Neanderthals and, by implication, shows that there is no reason any more to continue to question the Neanderthal authorship of the symbolic artefacts of the Châtelperronian culture.
"When considering the nature of the cultural and genetic exchanges that occurred between Neanderthals and modern humans at the time of contact in Europe, we should recognise that identical levels of cultural achievement had been reached by both sides."
In earlier work, Professor Zilhão and colleagues have argued they are genuine Neanderthal artefacts which demonstrate the independent evolution of advanced cognition in the Neanderthal lineage.
However, the Châtelperronian evidence dates from 40,000 to 45,000 years ago - overlapping with the period when anatomically modern human people began to disperse into Europe, between 40,000 and 42,000 years ago, and leaving open the possibility that these symbolic artifacts relate to modern men rather than cavemen.
Accurate radiocarbon dating of shell and charcoal samples from the two Murcian sites, Cueva de los Aviones and Cueva Antón, was crucial to the research. The dating was undertaken at the University of Oxford's Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit.
Dr Thomas Higham, Deputy Director of the Radiocarbon Unit in the School of Archaeology said: "Dating samples that approach the limit of the technique, at around 55,000 years before present, is a huge challenge.
"We used the most refined methods of pre-treatment chemistry to obtain accurate dates for the sites involved by removing small amounts of more modern carbon contamination to discover that the shells and charcoal samples were as early as 50,000 years ago."