Cavemen Rock, Part IX: Pre-Contact Neanderthals
So, these guys really need no introduction. Everyone has heard of Neanderthals, and everyone knows that you’re not really supposed to say the th since it’s a German word, and no one cares. They are the closest known relatives of “modern” humans, or Homo sapiens, outside their own species. As the popular-science narrative goes, Neanderthals lived across western Eurasia from 400,000 years ago until their gradual replacement by modern humans between 50,000 and 30,000 years ago. The replacement process occurred gradually, at least partially as the result of genetic admixture with modern humans. This last point is the big one, for which credit is owed to Svante Paabo and company.
Their (re-)discovery was monumental: most people today have Neanderthal DNA; if that’s the case, it follows that Neanderthals and “modern” humans had children together. This happened in the last hundred thousand years. In other words, most people today—myself included—are part Neanderthal.
Neanderthals, named after a 17th-century German pseudointellectual (really!), were around between 400kya and 30kya. The name translates more or less to “Newmandales” (really! neo “new” ander “man” thal “dale”). Here’s what they looked like:
WHAT’S THIS??? A CHALLENGER EMERGES FOR THE TITLE:
WHO IS THE SMUGGEST CAVEMAN?
H. neanderthalensis vs. H. georgicus
I think it’s a draw.
As you can see, especially when compared with a more archaic species like H. erectus georgicus, better known to us as Grandpa George, Neanderthals looked a whole lot like us. If you look closely, you can see that their foreheads and chins aren’t as pronounced as ours, but not noticeably so. They also had shaggy hair and a beard. We know they were (comparatively) hairless. They tended to be about a head shorter than us, but were “denser”—much physically stronger, and consequently needed more calories than modern humans. They had this great little niche in the northern latitudes of Eurasia, occasionally reaching as far south as the Levant. They hunted big game of the forest and tundra—mammoths, et cetera. They lived lives as difficult and violent as you might expect. Few lived past thirty, which means I’m going to be a pretty old Neanderthal in July.
Behavior, Spoken Language, and Technology
Now, the primary focus of this series is exploring the development of modern human behavior. So, how did Neanderthals act? They looked like us, did they act like us?
It has become fashionable in the pop-science literature to say, “we used to think Neanderthals were dumb cavemen, but not anymore”. Well, hang on. They were cavemen. They lived in caves—at least some of the time. A man who lives in a cave is by definition a caveman, especially when that man happens to live in prehistoric times. They were cavemen, or at least many of them were. Pop culture, 1. Science nerds, 0. PROUDLY IRRELEVANT.
But no, they weren’t dumb—well, at least, they weren’t incapable of learning, and in fact they were almost—almost—on par with people today in terms of behavior and cognitive ability. The more we examine Neanderthal behavior, the more we come to understand a creature whose ways were almost like ours…behavior that is conclusively pre-modern, but that tiptoes on the edge of modernity. Toward the end of their tenure, they ran into us—that is, modern humans—which may have exposed them to new ideas and technologies that they didn’t come up with on their own, but were quite happy to borrow from us. By the time they disappeared, Neanderthals were creating art, music, and ritual items. But these phenomena only arose after contact with H. sapiens—so, what about beforehand?
I recently got a question asking about Neanderthals and spoken language. We think right now that Neanderthals could speak, given the skeletal and genetic evidence—their voice boxes and ears were as fine-tuned for speech as ours, and Neanderthal remains have yielded FOXP2, the famous “language gene”. But just because they could, doesn’t mean they did. It could also be that Neanderthals had a language that worked, cognitively, for the Neanderthal brain, but wouldn’t work cognitively for ours. Or maybe Neanderthals had language, but it was simple and easy to pick up, which contributed to our eventual triumph—we could learn their language, but they couldn’t learn ours. We don’t know.
The pre-contact Neanderthal tool type is known as the Mousterian tradition, which emerged from the Acheulean (remember that?). The Mousterian tradition is characterized by a complex flaking procedure known as the Lavallois teachnique:
I am not even a fraction as cool as John Shea, my paleoanthropology hero. Being one of the most badass flintknappers this side of the Great Rift Valley, he’d be able to tell us a lot more about the Lavallois Technique than I could. All I know is that it’s quite difficult and not something you get simply by banging rocks together. It was a cognitive skill that required mastery in order to survive, and Neanderthals were quite good at it. Even better than John “the Titan” Shea.
Once we’ve made a spearhead with the Lavallois Technique, we need to stick that sucker on a shaft. How, you say? Check this out: Neanderthals could make glue using a complex chemical process. That’s right, they were chemists too. In what is now Modern Italy, Neanderthals figured out how to make glue from birchbark (3), a complicated step-by-step process that you or me couldn’t for the life of us work out on our own. So with Neanderthals, even pre-contact Neanderthals, we’re seeing more complexity and elaborateness than ever before. We’re not, however, seeing adaptation. Neanderthals did one thing, did it well, and kept doing it. Neanderthal technology seems to have changed very little over a very long time—until they ran into us.
Early on, we talked about how one of the marks of behavioral modernity, or “peoplehood”, is a sense of the spiritual. Could Neanderthals have had this sense? Neanderthals are the descendants of H. antecessor and H. heidelbergensis; indeed, the academic lumpers among us would call H. heidelbergensis an early kind of Proto-Neanderthal. Do you remember where, behaviorally, we were with heidelbergensis? They were deliberately disposing of their dead in the same place, and it may just be that they had some conception of an afterlife—the beautiful Excalibur hand-axe perhaps the world’s oldest extant burial offering. The Neanderthals stood on their shoulders, and seemed to have developed a genuine sense of the spiritual or religious—a key marker of behavioral modernity.
One site that suggests some sort of spiritual activity is—and this is a real trip—the mysterious stone rings of Bruniquel Cave, in modern France (4). The site consists of these, well, stone rings, made from broken stalagmites and apparently consciously arranged. This site, furthermore, is so deep into the bowels of the cave that its builders must have had some way of carrying fire there for illumination—and, indeed, ashes remain smudged on the surrounding rocks to this day. The builders of these circles must have had some means of bringing the fire this deep into the cave—torches or embers, perhaps, with slow-burning fuel. Modern humans were not at this time present in France—these structures had to have been made by Neanderthals.
What were they? Winter shelters? Properly rid of bears etc., the deep interior of a cave provides a toasty place to hole up for a few months if you have fire—which, as we see, they did. The Bruniquel circles might be the remains of huts.
But if that were the case, we’d see trash heaps and other signs of habitation. At Bruniquel, we don’t. It doesn’t appear that anyone lived here—just that they arranged the circles and completed their non-residential business therewith. What was going on down there? It’s a maddening question. Could we be seeing the remains of some sort of cultic shrine? What else would be down that deep in a cave, with no signs of other use, with structures that took time and labor to make? Perhaps the structures are ritual, perhaps not. Perhaps they served a purpose, one that would be eminently clear to a Neanderthal, but unclear to us. We don’t know. Maybe they could’ve explained the structures’ purpose us, using conventional language, or maybe they could explto one another in a language that is inherently unlearnable
Just how big was the gap? Again, we don’t know. At any rate, however, there is something, some inherent difference, between humans and Neanderthals. As things are right now, we just don’t know what it is. We’ll take a few guesses at those differences later on, when we discuss what happened when they met modern humans.