Skip to main page content
Access keys NCBI Homepage MyNCBI Homepage Main Content Main Navigation
. 2013 Jul 10;8(7):e68572.
doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0068572. Print 2013.

An Ochered Fossil Marine Shell From the Mousterian of Fumane Cave, Italy

Free PMC article

An Ochered Fossil Marine Shell From the Mousterian of Fumane Cave, Italy

Marco Peresani et al. PLoS One. .
Free PMC article


A scanty but varied ensemble of finds challenges the idea that Neandertal material culture was essentially static and did not include symbolic items. In this study we report on a fragmentary Miocene-Pliocene fossil marine shell, Aspamarginata, discovered in a Discoid Mousterian layer of the Fumane Cave, northern Italy, dated to at least 47.6-45.0 Cal ky BP. The shell was collected by Neandertals at a fossil exposure probably located more than 100 kms from the site. Microscopic analysis of the shell surface identifies clusters of striations on the inner lip. A dark red substance, trapped inside micropits produced by bioeroders, is interpreted as pigment that was homogeneously smeared on the outer shell surface. Dispersive X-ray and Raman analysis identify the pigment as pure hematite. Of the four hypotheses we considered to explain the presence of this object at the site, two (tool, pigment container) are discarded because in contradiction with observations. Although the other two ("manuport", personal ornament) are both possible, we favor the hypothesis that the object was modified and suspended by a 'thread' for visual display as a pendant. Together with contextual and chronometric data, our results support the hypothesis that deliberate transport and coloring of an exotic object, and perhaps its use as pendant, was a component of Neandertal symbolic culture, well before the earliest appearance of the anatomically modern humans in Europe.

Conflict of interest statement

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.


Figure 1
Figure 1. Location of Fumane cave (FU) and of fossil exposures with Aspa marginata shells.
Cassina Rizzardi in the Lombardy Pre-Alps (1); Miocene and Pliocene exposures south of the Po Valley (2) (by
Figure 2
Figure 2. Stratigraphy of the Fumane Cave sequence in squares 137-147.
Figure 3
Figure 3. Aspa marginata shells.
The broken Aspa marginata shell (a) from the Mousterian stratigraphic Unit A9 of Fumane Cave and three complete natural fossil shells (b–d) of the same species from Pliocene deposits close to Asti, Piemonte region, Italy.
Figure 4
Figure 4. Estimation of the original size of the broken Aspa marginata from Fumane.
Estimation (gray symbols) of the original height (H) and width (W) have been obtained by correlating the diameter of the last body whorl suture (DS) with the height (black squares) and width (black dots) of three fossil specimens from Pliocene deposits close to Asti, Piemonte region.
Figure 5
Figure 5. Details of the surface of Aspa marginata shells.
Above, location of the micrographs (a–c) taken on the Fumane Aspa marginata ; d-e: inner lips of two Aspa marginata from Pliocene deposits close to Asti, Piemonte region. Notice in b the palympsest of striations present on the inner lip of the archaeological specimen. Scales = 100 µm unless indicated otherwise.
Figure 6
Figure 6. Outer surface of an Aspa marginata shell from the reference collection (a, and from the Fumane specimen (b–f).
Notice the presence on both shells of pits produced by bioeroders associated, at Fumane, with networks of micro-grooves (c) due to the same taphonomic agent. All micro-concavities on the Fumane specimen (b–f), including pits truncated by the shell fracture (d) are filled with a red substance and prominent areas are affected by a slight polish (e–f).
Figure 7
Figure 7. Scanning Electron Microscope micrographs.
Micrographs have been obtained in secondary (a, c, d) and back-scattered electron detector mode (b) of a micropit filled with red substance on the Fumane Aspa marginata shell (see text).
Figure 8
Figure 8. Results of the Energy Dispersive X-ray analysis performed on the Fumane Aspa marginata shell.
a: outer shell surface, b: broken crystals on the edge of the micropit shown in Figure 7d, c: red substance filling the pit (Figure 7c).
Figure 9
Figure 9. Comparison of Raman spectra.
Raman spectra of the red substance trapped in two different pits on the surface of the Fumane Aspa marginata shell (a, b) and reference spectra for hematite (c, d, e) from the Rruff database [99].

Similar articles

See all similar articles

Cited by 16 articles

See all "Cited by" articles


    1. Chase PG, Dibble HL (1987) Middle Paleolithic symbolism: a review of current evidence and interpretations. J Anthropol Archaeol 6: 263-296. doi:10.1016/0278-4165(87)90003-1. - DOI
    1. d’Errico F (2003) The Invisible Frontier. A Multiple Species Models Orig Behav Modernity Evol Anthropol 12: 188–202.
    1. d’Errico F, Stringer CB (2011) Evolution, revolution or saltation scenario for the emergence of modern cultures? Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci 366: 1060-1069. doi:10.1098/rstb.2010.0340. PubMed: 21357228. - DOI - PMC - PubMed
    1. Langley MC, Clarkson C, Ulm S (2008) Behavioural Complexity in Eurasian Neanderthal Populations: a Chronological Examination of the Archaeological Evidence. Cambridge Archeological Journal 18: 289-307.
    1. Mellars P (2010) Neanderthal symbolism and ornament manufacture: The bursting of a bubble? Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 107: 20147–20148. doi:10.1073/pnas.1014588107. PubMed: 21078972. - DOI - PMC - PubMed

Publication types


Grant support

Research at Fumane is coordinated by the Ferrara University in the framework of a project supported by the Italian Ministry of Culture - Veneto Archaeological Superintendence, public institutions (Lessinia Mountain Community - Regional Natural Park, Fumane Municipality, Veneto Region - Department for Cultural Heritage, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology), and private associations and companies (National Geographic Society – CRE Grant 9022-11, Cariverona Foundation, Banca di Credito Cooperativo della Valpolicella, Roberto Gardina & C., Albino Armani Vinegrowers since 1607 and others). Microscopic study of the shell and elemental and mineralogical analysis of the pigment were funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013/ERC grant agreement no. 249587). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.