Neanderthals: More Than “Cavemen”

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If we think about the the first topic in Social Studies 3219 – innovations that have affected the human experience – we spent some time on prehistoric peoples, one of which was the group that have come to be known as Neanderthals.

Here’s a link to an article from the Ancient History Encyclopedia that covers Neanderthal discovery, geography, morphology (physical form and structure), lifestyle, and what happened to the species after thriving for a few hundred thousand years (it used to be believed that Cro-Magnons killed them off, but more evidence points to multiple possibilities including interbreeding of species).

Of particular interest to us in this unit is the use of tools and other innovations that affected the lives of Neanderthals (as similar advancements influenced the experiences of homo sapiens as well). I’ve included a passage from the article below, but I encourage you to read the whole thing, as it helps consolidate some of the knowledge and ideas we have been working with.

LIFESTYLE

Both the powerful build and amount of trauma seen in Neanderthals indicate they were active hunters, and what we know about the high reliance on meat in their diet ties in with the amount of energy hunting would have required. They ate mostly herbivore meat, from mammals such as bison, wild cattle, reindeer, deer, ibex and wild boar. Interestingly, the very largest of the Ice Age herbivores, woolly mammoths and woolly rhinoceros, actually represent a large part of the Neanderthal diet. It would have been no mean feat to bring these animals down, even for a coordinated group of skilled hunters – which the Neanderthals would have been. Besides meat there was also a strong plant component to their diet, most likely consisting of legumes and grasses, seeds and fruits. Moreover, it is clear that Neanderthals cooked their food and maybe even knew medicinal uses of plants.

As far as the tools Neanderthals used, they are most commonly (but not exclusively) associated with Mousterian lithic technology. Flint flakes were turned into side scrapers, retouched points, and small hand-axes, usually from locally available material. Very few bone tools are known, but wooden tools were most likely used, too. From at least 200,000 years ago Neanderthals had the ability to control fire, when we know it was used as a tool to produce birch-bark pitch, although they likely used it much earlier already, as controlled use of fire appeared throughout Europe from 400,000 years ago onward.

Not big on building their own structures (although exceptions are known), their fires would predominantly have lit caves or other natural shelters, in which the living areas that have been found are relatively small and a bit chaotic, showing no clear focus of activity. Hearths are well defined, though, and probably played a central role not just with regard to cooking or warmth but also for tool production.

Traditionally, Neanderthals were depicted as cognitively inferior to the arriving modern humans, with a less sophisticated culture and lack of symbolic thought that would have given our ancestors the edge. However, this image has now been overturned; Neanderthals were clearly a complex group. Besides coordinated hunting (for which effective communication is needed), caring for their wounded, advanced use of fire and tool production, Neanderthals have been known to intentionally bury their dead. Moreover, stalagmite rings built by the Neanderthals in Bruniquel cave in France, dated to 176,500 years ago, show planning, control of the underground environment, and perhaps symbolic use. They also perforated and coloured marine shells, and, strikingly, seem to have used red ochre at a site in Maastricht-Belvedère as early as a stunning 200,000-250,000 years ago, drawing it level with the time range documented for the African record for the use of ochre. These were no simple brutes, and their disappearance cannot be explained away by a large perceived gap in intelligence between our species.

 

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