Over at Julien Riel-Salvatore's blog, A Very Remote Period Indeed , the latest entry linkes to a nice little paper that purports to show that Neandertals were competent users of ochre(e.g. red, yellow, black, brown pigments made from iron oxides, the same substance that causes rust on metal). Now it is true that, last fall, there is evidence that "modern" humans used such pigments, in Africa, much earlier than the 40,000 year "human revolution" that was supposed to mark the time when people became "fully human", whatever that is supposed to mean. At least one researcher is still claiming that that "modern" humans, and only "modern" humans, underwent some sort of "brain mutation" slightly earlier, which allowed them to be "fully symbolic, but this African material seems to contradict that view.
Still, a lot of people could comfort themselves with the idea that other, "archaic" humans didn't have these abilities; after all, there did not appear to be any concrete evidence for any such thing. Through a linkable free PDF, Julien Riel-Salvatore proposes something quite different, namely that Neandertals were also perfectly competent in this department. Now as far as we know, there is as yet no evidence that they painted caves, but then, probably, nobody has been looking. Maybe they painted caves, maybe they didn't. But apparently they used ochre, 60,000 or so years ago, for various purposes, including, apparently, nonutilitarian ones. Nonutilitarian uses might well have included decorating themselves or their clothes with ochre. Of course, this kind of decoration might have had a practical purpose as well. But who says such covering has to be only "practical"? In other words, it is at least possible that they had enough of an "esthetic" sense to beautify themselves or whatever they wore, with designs of some kind. And besides, it might well have actually served a practical purpose, e.g. identification, much as traditional Irish sweaters served the families of traditional Irish fishermen as identification. But that's another story, I suppose.