Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Exploring the Neanderthal Mind, an Introduction

What do you see when you look at the object above? In one view, it is completely unremarkable. It is simply a stone cutting tool used be prehistoric people, a basic technology made by hitting rocks with other rocks. Stonework like this is our first, and our least complex technology. Switching to another view, it is completely unlike any other stone tool you've ever seen. Your eyes have already spotted the fossil in the center of the piece. This tool was designed to cut things, but it was also designed for you to see that fossil. The stone from which this was made was chipped away in such a manner as to bring that fossil to the surface. The fossil was not only intentionally revealed, but was intentionally centered so as to draw your focus. This simple hand axe raises a difficult question: Does this object look beautiful?

I'm curious as to what people today see in this object because I hope it can shed light on a related, yet much more difficult question. You see, there is a problem – this hand axe found in Norfolk England was not made by the English, I'm not asking whether we see this as beautiful, because we didn't make it. It was made around 200,000 years ago by a Neanderthal. Special rocks, such as this, were traded between far flung Neanderthal groups, sometimes 100-200 miles. It is revealing that regular old hand axes were not traded in this way, they did not have the same value. The question I really want to know is why. Why did Neanderthals incorporate fossils into their hand axes? What made these hand axes so different than all the others, what was their extra-ordinary value?

Those questions hinge on Neanderthal behavior, the question can be reformatted as: What is it about their behavior which motivated them to incorporate fossils into objects. This question relies on a simple premise, that their physical behavior is indicative of mental behavior. Neanderthals treated these rocks differently because they thought about them differently. This is the deeper question I'm trying to ask: What did a Neanderthal see when they looked at this hand axe? Did they, as we might now, see something aesthetically pleasing or beautiful?

This is partially an impossible question, as it asks for facts about the mental phenomena of long dead individuals in a long dead species. This question may at first glance seem unanswerable, but that premise is not my starting point. If such questions were outright unanswerable then the discussion would promptly cease. While I obviously cannot answer questions about the Neanderthal mind with scientific assurance, I will try to get as close to answering them as I can. To construct a lexicon of the Neanderthal mental capacity necessitates understanding their behavioral repertoire...all of which requires an extreme amount of context! To slow chip away at the obfuscated mountain of the Neanderthal mind, we must be cognizant of their behavior, physiology, culture, and genome. Hopefully, employing context can reveal which Neanderthal behaviors necessitate certain thoughts. So let us begin...

Chris Stringer's hypothesis of the family tree of the genus Homo, published 2012

Models of three hominin faces. Homo Erectus (left), Homo Heidelbergensis (center), and Homo Neanderthalensis (right). By Paleoartist John Gurche

The easiest way to comprehend such large scales of time is through the notation kya (thousand years ago). Compared to the present, I was born 0.025 kya. The first World War began 0.1 kya, and Columbus led Europeans to the New World 0.5 kya. 1 kya Byzantine Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism split as the Pope and Patriarch excommunicated each other, and 2 kya the Roman Emperor Tiberius was purging his Praetorian guard wholly unconcerned with the crucifixion of radical preachers in Judaea. Mentioned in my previous post, the first human megalith at Gobekli Tepe was constructed around 11.5 kya. Homo Sapiens Neanderthalensis existed from around 250-28 kya. We split from a common ancestor around 400-350 kya, most likely from Homo Heidelbergensis. Oh, who could guess where Homo Heidelbergensis was first discovered? Heidelbergensis originated around 1,300-800 kya and lived til around 200 kya, ranging over eastern/southern Africa, Europe, and western Asia. As groups of Heidelbergensis became more and more spread out across their landscape, their lineage began to diverge. Around 400-350 kya African Heidelbergensis started to make physiological moves towards modern humans. It was around the same time when the Eurasian branch started to move towards Neanderthals. Heidelbergensis also spawned Denisovans in the modern day steppes of Russia, and a fourth unknown lineage presumably in south-east Asia.

The evolution and timeline of early Hominins
Giving such precise dates as 250-28 kya is completely impossible. Many people debate both of those numbers. The first emergence of Neanderthals is impossible to pin down – all we have are a collection of Neanderthal traits emerging around 300-200 kya, with Neanderthals becoming genetically distinct between 400-300 kya. The last Neanderthals are also impossible to pin down, generally they died out around 40-28 kya, completely depending on which carbon dating results you accept. The assumption that Homo Heidelbergensis is our common ancestor with Neanderthals is also up in the air: a recent study from 2013 which examined 1200 molars from 13 hominin species found results contradictory to anthropological orthodoxy. “None of the species that have been previously suggested as the last common ancestor of Neanderthals and modern humans has a dental morphology that is fully compatible with the expected morphology of this ancestor.” -Aida Gomes-Robles. The species thrown out are all of the common suspects: Heidelbergensis, Homo Erectus, Homo Antecessor. This would suggest that our common ancestor with Neanderthals existed more than 1 million years ago, instead of 300-400 kya. “The study tells us that there are still new hominin finds waiting to be made...fossil finds from about 1 million years ago in Africa deserve close scrutiny as the possible ancestor of Neanderthals and modern humans.” -David Polly. Now it would be unreasonable to radically alter our timeline from one study, but the gist is that it's complicated. For now, I will assume the general timeline and that Heidelbergensis is our common ancestor with Neanderthals.

The range of Homo Sapiens Neanderthalensis (or is it Homo Neanderthalensis?)

Northwest Europe during the Paleolithic period, showing its radically different shoreline. The present shoreline of Europe did not become recognizable until about 9 kya

During their lifetime, Neanderthals ranged throughout central Asia and Europe. The Neanderthal population was spread out unevenly, with the greatest amount of contact between groups in central Asia. This is because this area shows the greatest diversity in Neanderthal DNA, giving evidence to idea that their homeland was in Asia with occasional branches entering Europe. How in the world can we say anything about Neanderthal DNA? Surprisingly enough we can say a lot, their genes tell a strange and previously unknown story which has only recently been deciphered. Svante Paabo (Svante Pรครคbo) started working with DNA in 1981, extracting samples from Egyptian mummies. No one thought it was possible to get a real workable sample, but he did. He moved on to extracting DNA from extinct cave bears and ground sloths, which again no one thought would be possible. He proved them wrong. Moving on from extinct bears to extinct hominins, most recently in 2010 Svante Paabo and colleagues (56 other researchers) at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology uncovered the Neanderthal genome. In 2013 they discovered all 3 billion base pairs, and since then research has been slowly piecing together the consequence of this discovery. This groundbreaking research from 2006-2010 catapulted him to fame. Now (in 2014) we can read the Neanderthal genome side by side to our own, an insane feat of modern science thought impossible merely 10 years ago. If Neanderthals became genetically distinct from our common ancestor between 400-300 kya, how has the intervening years changed their genome?

The Genome and Body

Our Neanderthal Inheritance

The family tree of the four groups of Hominins living in Eurasia around 50 kya, and the lingering genetic heritage due to interbreeding

Svante Paabo

The Neanderthal genome contains many secrets: their genealogy, muscle development, digestive system, diseases they carried, and their immunology. All of these aspects of Neanderthal lives were invisible from the study of their bones. As it turns out, 97% of our DNA is from Homo Sapiens, the other 3% is from Neanderthals. “Think about it in terms of numbers, today there are about 6 billion people living in the world outside of sub-Saharan Africa, 3% of their ancestry traces to Neanderthals, we're talking around about 200 million Neanderthals. Neanderthals today are more successful than they ever were when they actually existed.” -John Hawks. The 3% figure is actually an average, Neanderthal inheritance varies dramatically between human populations. Humans whose ancestors lived in paleolithic Europe and Asia are much more related to Neanderthals (up to 5%) than humans whose paleolithic ancestors lived in sub-Saharan Africa or the Americas (down to 1%). While this average may vary, all humans share some amount of Neanderthal genes. Specifically we share nuclear DNA but not mitochondrial (maternally transmitted) DNA. This prompts the hypothesis that female humans and male Neanderthals produced offspring, but male humans and female Neanderthals were either rare, absent, or sterile. The simple acknowledgment that our DNA is not wholly resultant from other Homo Sapiens shows that we, as a species, had no scruples interbreeding with other hominins. It is also solid evidence that we interbred with Neanderthals at all, which was heavily in dispute until these findings. While we obtained genes from Neanderthals, these studies also show us which genes are owned solely by ourselves, and no one else.

The most ridiculous picture of John Hawks I could find on the internet

The most important genes we inherited deal with the HLA (human leukocyte antigen) system. These HLA genes are fundamental to creating our immune system and vital to fighting off disease. Through inheritance, we adopted these genes which developed specifically within the Neanderthal immune system. Their immune system had evolved to fight off ice age diseases, which we (as recent transplants from Africa) had no immunity to. This environmental upgrade was first developed within the human population by Neanderthal and Human hybrids. These hybrids had quite the advantage of those without this enhanced immune system, enough of an advantage to slowly bring these genes back into the human population...and spread them across the world.

In a 2014 study by Liran Carmel and Eran Meshorer, which reconstructed the Neanderthal and Denisovan epigenome, researchers found human-unique genes involved with brain development (which makes sense), but also with our immune and cardiovascular systems. They discovered certain genes, like those related to our digestive system, which were shared in common with Neanderthals and humans. A 2010 study led by Liran Carmel found genes related to Alzheimer's, autism, and schizophrenia which had been (through epigenetic markers) “turned off” for Neanderthals and “turned on” for humans. This might mean that Neanderthals and humans did not share these mental illnesses, but that they are a human phenomenon. While this may be the case, epigenetic markers vary wildly between populations due to climate, diet, and a range of other factors. This individual Neanderthal did not suffer from these illnesses, it may not be emblematic of the population at large.

In a separate 2014 study by Sriram Sankararaman and David Reich, they found that we inherited Neanderthal genes related to the susceptibility for Crohn's Disease, Lupus, and Type 2 Diabetes. In addition to diseases, Neanderthals and ourselves share a susceptibility towards certain cancers. A study by David Frayer analyzed a rib bone from Krapina, Croatia and found fibrous dysplasia. This type of cancer is still found in the modern population 120 thousand years later. “They probably were sleeping in caves with burning fires...inhaling a lot of smoke...So the air was not completely free of pollutants.” -David Frayer. It is remarkable that we can come to find such similarities with Neanderthals, even if it is only to understand the pain of a disease shared in common.

Over the course of thousands of years, the internal structure of our bodies was slowly reformatted by our genetic interaction with Neanderthals. As our internal bodies changed, so did our epidermal layer. We inherited the BNC2 gene from Neanderthals, this gene specifically deals with skin pigmentation. This discovery implies we Homo Sapiens inherited our pale skin from Neanderthals! This genetic change took thousands of years to fully take hold, beginning its spread throughout European humans at most only 7 kya. In addition to inheriting genes for pale skin, we also inherited the gene for red hair from our Neanderthal cousins. The level of our shared genetic heritage has been fluctuating as well, slowly decreasing as time marches on. Otzi, the Ice-Man, who died around 5.3 kya in the Alps, shares more DNA with Neanderthals than modern Alpine humans. Thousands of years after the extinction of the Neanderthals, the last remnant of their time on earth, their genes, slowly recedes from the world.

A model of Otzi

Pandora's box has been opened, and 3 billion base pairs fell out. The small steps we've made in the last 4 years have shown great advances in both our technological limits and our understanding of Neanderthals. The provisional reconstruction of the Neanderthal and Denisovan epigenome this year (in 2014) is the first step towards an entirely new science. The researchers in that study have already planned to reconstruct the epigenome of Natufians to see how early agriculture effected our epigenome. Whatever they find, it will not be boring. If diseases such as autism and schizophrenia turn out to be a human-unique phenomenon, it would add interesting detail to the evolutionary history of our frontal lobe. All of this changes how we see ourselves – what makes us human is not only the usual suspects (such as brain size or language), but also our mental health and our epigenome. This field of research is incredibly new and fast paced...so watch out! It may all be completely different in 5 years.

Svante Paabo and the skull of a rival geneticist

Their Bones and Body

The Neanderthal genome is a beautiful example of what can be reconstructed from the fossil record, but our search for information does not end there, don't discount the bones! The majority of what we understand about Neanderthals comes from their fossils, and to understand the Neanderthal mind we must ask what is so special about their bones? Neanderthal bones are similar to human weight lifters, not bulky but wiry. Their bones were shorter, denser, thicker, stronger than ours – very well adapted to a life of strenuous activity. Their bones are also more effected by osteoarthritis than ours. Neanderthals lived a brutish life comparatively, 2/3rds are dead by age 30. The maximum age of Neanderthals is 45-50, and by that time their bodies were as run-down as an elderly human. Neanderthals also had larger brains than humans, which strangely enough has no bearing on intelligence. In fact, “more of the Neanderthal brain appears to have been dedicated to vision and body control, leaving less brain to deal with other functions like social networking.” -Eiluned Pearce. On the outside of the body, genetics has shown that Neanderthals would be pale skinned and some had red hair. A 2007 genetic study found that Neanderthals had a version of the MC1R gene, which helps us produce more vitamin D and absorb more calcium from food. While that trait is certainly beneficial, the gene also gives us red hair! In humans this varies between red and dark hair (blond hair is a different genetic change). Sadly we don't know all the genes which contribute to pigmentation, so any assertion is only a likelihood and far from certain.

A computer illustration of the facial geometry of a Neanderthal compared to modern Homo Sapiens

A reconstruction of Shanidar 1, by paleoartist John Gurche

A model of a Neanderthal presumably experiencing happiness. From the Neanderthal Museum in Mettmann, Germany

This pale red headed stocky fellow was also kind of short. 27 limb bones from Atapuerca (near Burgos) Spain were examined in a 2012 study by Carretero Diaz to estimate the height of Pleistocene hominins. Heidelbergensis were a little taller than Neanderthals, with the average Neanderthal height being 5'3”. Heidelbergensis and Neanderthals were a similar height to modern Mediterranean humans. In fact, most hominins stayed about the same size for around 2 million years (Habilis in Africa, Georgicus in Georgia, Floresiensis in Indonesia were short and the exceptions to the rule). While the average height stayed the same, “Amongst every population we have found a tall or very tall individual.” -Researchers with the study. Our Homo genus stayed the same height until about 200 kya when African Sapiens made their entrance to the scene. We were significantly taller on average than all of our predecessors, a hunting band of Homo Sapiens must have been quite a sight to a short Neanderthal. “The explanation is found in the overall morphological change in the body biotype that prevailed in our species compared to our ancestors. The Homo Sapiens had a slimmer body, lighter bones, longer legs, and were taller.” -Researchers with the study.

A height comparison of Heidelbergensis, Neanderthals, and Homo Sapiens, from Plataforma SINC

A model reconstruction of a Neanderthal (named Wilma) from the El Sidron Cave in Spain, next to a living Homo Sapiens (named Marina Allende)

The changes in our body morphology were extremely helpful...we had better thermoregulatory, obstetric, and nutritional systems. Overall we had definite increases in endurance and energy. “Larger legs, narrower hips, being taller and having lighter bones not only meant a reduction in body weight (less muscular fat) but a bigger stride, greater speed, and a lower energy cost when moving the body, walking, or running.” -Carretero Diaz. This extreme physical gap between us and them put Neanderthals at quite the disadvantage, which we will examine later. 

The Paleo-Diet

The Paleo-Diet

This stout muscular Neanderthal body required a lot of nutrition, exactly how many calories is debated, but we do know what they ate. They hunted rhinoceroses, bison, brown bear, red deer, and horses, eating the meat and bone marrow. Neanderthals would focus on prime-aged adult prey as opposed to juveniles or older adults, with this behavior starting around 250 kya from evidence at Hayonim cave in Israel. Neanderthals would sometimes focus on a single species, like at Mauran France, where a Neanderthal butchery site contained around 4,000 bison remains. Other places in France and Germany were specialized bovid kill sites. At Salzgitter-Lebenstedt Germany there is a Neanderthal hunting site dedicated to reindeer, and it was only used in early Autumn during their annual migrations. What Neanderthals hunted depended entirely on the local climate, in warm forests they hunted solitary game but in colder tundra they hunted herds.

Neanderthals hunting a rhinoceros

Neanderthals also famously hunted mammoths, as evidenced by the site at La Cotte de St. Brelade, Jersey. In our popular imagination, this site has spawned the idea that Neanderthals herded mammoths off cliffs as if they were giant furry elephantine lemmings. This idea attempted to explain the severe damage seen in mammoth leg bones at the site, which would have been difficult for Neanderthals to accomplish with tools. While this is still unexplained, the area is most likely a mammoth processing site. Bone heaps are arranged in patterns, with some heaps containing mainly skulls and ribs, and others containing limbs and pelvic bones. “I can't imagine a way in which Neanderthals would have been able to force mammoths down this slope and then up again before they even got to the edge of the headland...and they're unlikely to have got up there in the first place.” -Beccy Scott. Since the bone piles were intentionally divided, it is most likely a result of butchering and organizing. Burnt bone charcoal has also been found, signaling that the bones were used for fuel. The site is amazingly well preserved, stemming from fine silt dust which blew over the site after its abandonment.

Neanderthals hunting mammoths off the cliffs at Jersey, which definitely still happened regardless of what Beccy Scott or any informed scientists say

After big game meat, Neanderthals ate any living creature they could get their hands on. Tortoises, shellfish, hares, rabbits, birds, molluscs, seals, dolphins were all eaten when Neanderthals had the opportunity. “Neanderthals harvested live molluscs on the rocks for eating, transported them to their living sites in wet algae bundles, and discarded their shells after eating the flesh...They did this with limpets, mussels, and topshells.” -Joao Zilhao. The Neanderthal diet is not only carnivorous, but opportunistic and omnivorous, very similar to our own.

More recently, we have greatly expanded our understanding of the Neanderthal diet. Not only did they eat meat, but they also ate plants! Evidence from fecal remains at El Salt in Spain show phytosterol (a compound similar to cholesterol found in plants). “It would take a significant plant intake to produce even a small amount of metabolized phytosterol.” -Ainara Sistiaga. While it is possible that they obtained phytosterol from eating the stomachs of herbivores, other evidence does not support this idea. Microscopic analysis of fossilized tartar on Neanderthal teeth has found starch granules, cattails, oats, and grains. Not only eaten raw, but cooked! The process of cooking changes the structure of these grains, which is still apparent after fossilization. Cooking grains would require a container, which (as seen in modern humans) would most likely be either a stuffed animal stomach or a bundle of large wrapped up leaves.

Ainara Sistiaga

Other evidence points to plant use outside of nutrition, “The evidence indicating this individual [Neanderthal] was eating bitter-tasting plants such as yarrow and chamomile with little nutritional value is surprising. We know that Neanderthals would find these plants bitter, so it is likely these plants must have been selected for reasons other than taste.” -Stephen Buckley. Selected for reasons other than taste leaves quite a large margin for theorizing. The simplest answer is that Neanderthals developed a taste for bitterness, not so far removed from the actions of people today. This points to Neanderthals collecting food based on criterion other than immediate practicality, an interesting mental shift related to culture. The other, more outlandish claim, would be that Neanderthals ate bitter plants as medicine. All indigenous human cultures have an understanding of the use of regional plants, and since Neanderthals discovered edible plants through experimentation it is not unreasonable to say that they too had this knowledge. Since neither explanation has much evidence, the simplest wins for now – they may have just enjoyed bitter food.

Hunting goes hand in hand with technology. Not only do animals provide meat, but the entirety of their bodies are used to complement all aspects of daily needs. Modern humans make needles, awls, and spear heads from animal bones. Sinews, gut, and tendons are used to bind tools or wooden hafts. Stomachs are used as bags for carrying water or blood. Fat is used to waterproof leather boots and clothing. Grease is smeared on exposed skin for insulation or to ward off insects. Hair is twisted to make thread. Skins are used to make bags, cloths, shoes, blankets, and shelters. While Neanderthals probably did not do exactly all these things, they must have used the animal to the best of their capabilities.

A group of Homo Erectus butchering an elephant

The Original Social Contract

The Original Social Contract

So far, the life of an individual Neanderthal is coming together. We know their genome, physiology, and diet. Yet the most important piece of the puzzle is missing: their social life. Neanderthals are just like humans in this regard, we are both extremely social. No individual is an island, and to look into the mind of a Neanderthal is to see one thinker within a thinking group. They lived in groups of 5-10, made up of their immediate family (humans lived in groups of 20-30 made up of relatives as well as close family). These familial clans occupied a small territory and rarely strayed from it except to trade. The population of Neanderthals in Europe peaked at around 70,000 individuals, with only around 7,000 reproductive females. Sometimes, multiple Neanderthal families would gather around a large kill site (like at La Cotte, Salzgitter-Lebenstedt, and Molodova), but this was temporary and as soon as the meat was gone, the group disbanded. At Molodova Ukraine there were multiple huts and wind breaks suiting maybe 20-40 Neanderthals at one area.

Living Together

In the same way that humans do, Neanderthals divided their living spaces in accordance to their needs. In open spaces like at Tor Faraj, there are multiple separate sections: butchery, primary stone processing, bone/antler work, final stone/plant processing, trash dump, a wind-break made of brush, straw bedding area, and a central activity area complete with a hearth. This is a clear sign of the social behavior of Neanderthals, they structured their area because they structured their behavior. Neanderthals did this not only in open spaces, but in caves as well. At Riparo Bombrini Italy, Neanderthals located butchering, tool-making, and fire use in different parts of their cave. Neanderthals were conservative in land use, with small clustered living sites even when outside. When living in a cave, Neanderthals occupied a small part at the entrance, and only slightly ventured deeper.

The Neanderthal living space at Lazaret Cave in southern France, by Libor Balak

When Neanderthal clans met it meant three things: communal butchery, trading, or warfare. Neanderthals traded precious stones, obsidian, and fossil shells over hundreds of kilometers. While not nearly as developed as early human trade, it is still remarkable that distant trading is not a uniquely human phenomenon. Large butchery sites and trading show interpersonal connection between clans, but just as with humans...spears are not only for hunting but for warfare. At Saint Cesaire France a Neanderthal burial circa 36 kya showed evidence of violence. This individual at some point had a serious head wound which had healed. The wound was made by a sharp object, and the location of the wound points toward violence as opposed to accident. Neanderthal clans competed over resources just as much as humans and chimpanzees do. The evolution of warfare is not unique to humans.

While contact between different clans led to violence, the social development within a clan is remarkable. The Neanderthal family group comprised multiple generations, with children and the elderly receiving special treatment. An elderly Neanderthal (around 40 years old) buried at the Shanidar Cave survived under extreme stress. This individual (who lived around 60-80 kya) was blind in the left eye from a severe wound, had a crippled right arm (which was withered and caused paralysis), and had a deformed lower right leg and foot. This individual could not hunt, but was cared for by its family for years. At La Chapelle-Aux-Saints a Neanderthal was found who only had two teeth. This individual could not chew food yet survived to be 40-50 years old. Most likely, this individual had food chewed for it by another family member multiple times every day for years. It is surprising to find love and affection in the fossil record, yet here it is. It is undeniable that these individuals were loved and cared for by their families.

Model of a Neanderthal at a American Museum of Natural History, D.C.

Neanderthals are not the only species to care for the injured, an elderly Homo Erectus in Dmanisi Georgia (around 1 million 750 kya) did not have teeth and probably had food chewed for it as well. At Atapuerca Spain a Homo Heidelbergensis was found with a severely deformed skull. This was a child, who lived with this deformity for 8-12 years. This child could not hunt, yet was fed and cared for by its family til its death, around 530 kya. Also at Atapuerca Spain another Heidelbergensis was found with a hobbled spine, this individual could not hunt either yet was cared for for years until its death around 500 kya. The care for the elderly goes hand in hand with what makes us human, yet it is not a uniquely human trait. This complex use of the emotion of sympathy began not even with Neanderthals, but with Homo Erectus about one million years ago. In this way, the mind of the Neanderthal creeps out, if only because this part of its mind is shared by both its evolutionary predecessor and us today.


Children and infants were also treated differently, they were given much more elaborate graves than most Neanderthals. “There is evidence that Neanderthals cared for their sick and injured children for months and often years.” -Penny Spikins. In the small and relatively isolated groups in which Neanderthals lived, children were much more important and valuable to the group's survival. Selection pressure focused on creating close emotional connections within such a small group. Humans have an extremely slow maturation rate compared to other hominins, “The slow development in children is directly related to the emergence of human social and cultural complexity.” -Jean-Jacques Hublin. While the average reproductive age of chimpanzees is 13, and humans 19, Neanderthals were somewhere in between. The rate of mental growth and generally the experience of a Neanderthal childhood would also have been somewhere in between those extremes. “We moved from a primitive 'live fast and die young' strategy to a 'live slow and grow old' strategy and that has helped make humans one of the most successful organisms on the planet.” -Tanya Smith.

A model of a Neanderthal child at the Neanderthal Museum in Krapina, Croatia

Model of a Neanderthal child by Elizabeth Daynes, at the National Museum of Prehistory at Les Eyzies

While Neanderthals cared deeply for their children, 39% of Neanderthals suffered significant periods of poor nutrition as infants, making hunger and famine somewhat common. While this may look like a rough upbringing, “There is a critical distinction to be made between a harsh childhood and a childhood lived in a harsh environment.” -Penny Spikins. Historically, 38% of prehistoric northern Canadian Inuit children had the same rates of famine. Neanderthals weren't bad providers, they provided the same amount of food as early modern humans. Gathering in such cold and harsh environments as Ice Age Europe was risky in and of itself. “Neanderthals were not as technologically sophisticated as the Inuit; that they were able to achieve comparable levels of nutrition with simpler tools is a testament to the success of their more physical, dangerous approach to daily life.” -Thomas Wynn, Frederick Collidge.

Illustration of a Neanderthal child (Ferrassie 8), by Emmanuel Roudier


We speak on average 16,000 words a day, language either spoken or in thought constitutes the majority of our inner lives. Is this the same for Neanderthals? Neanderthals could make the same range of phonemes as humans, we both have a peculiarly placed hyoid bone. Most animals have their hyoid bone located deep in their throat, allowing for only barking and bursts of uncontrollable force. Humans and Neanderthals are different, our hyoid bones are located in the upper part of our throat. This does two things: it gives us expert control over our vocal muscles which creates the panoply of phonemes we hear today, and it allows us to choke easily on food. The evolutionary benefit of complex language far outweighs the cost of an increase in choking deaths. At least when we're choking, we can use language to call for help!

There were some phonemes Neanderthals could not make. They lacked a mental protuberance, which is the point at the tip of the chin. The mentalis muscle helps move the lower lip and allows for bilabial phonemes in humans, as well as the bilabial click. While some Neanderthals do have a mental protuberance, it's not in the same shape as modern humans. With this information, we can scientifically prove the Neanderthal name Brokk was never used.

While Neanderthals could make complex sounds, how do we know they used them for communication? Their ancestors Homo Heidelbergensis had complex and well developed auditory tracts, with similar complexity as modern humans. This is evidence that Heidelbergensis had adapted to listening for complexity, which certainly is evidence of complex language. These features were passed down to Neanderthals and ourselves, evidence that the invention of language was far far in the past. Neanderthals also had the FOXP2 gene, alleles of which are associated with comprehending grammar and controlling mouth movements when producing words. Neanderthals also had well developed Broca's areas and Wernicke's areas in their brains, both of which play a role in complex language. All of this evidence points towards complex language use.

The location of Broca's Area, Wernicke's Area, and the hyoid bone in Homo Sapiens

If Neanderthals had complex language, what exactly did it sound like? The only academic trying to answer this question with something other than we don't know is Steven Mithen. In his 2006 book he contends that Neanderthal language would have been a proto-linguistic system of communication developed before the splitting of music and language into two separate forms of cognition. This is summed up as Hmmmmm: Holistic (non-compositional), Manipulative (utterances are commands or suggestions not descriptive statements), Multi-Modal (acoustic as well as gestural and mimetic), Musical, and Mimetic. While this is extremely theoretical and requires a lot of philosophizing, it is an interesting first step.

Steven Mithen

The context of language use is also vitally important to early humans. Humans built huge bonfires, and keep them going throughout the day and night. Thomas Wynn and Frederick Collidge in their book How to Think Like a Neanderthal explain that this novel use of fire is related to the invention of ritual and the birth of storytelling. For early humans, large fires were the central locus of their camps, and at night became the locus of group bonding and conversation. Neanderthals did not build large fires like this, and thus did not treat them as opportunities for storytelling and ritual. Fires were used only in a practical sense, as hearths for cooking, and nothing else. Neanderthals could still have ritual or stories but the context would be very different to how we perceive those uses of language. Neanderthals had few interactions with outsiders, and probably did not have different linguistic modes conveying politeness. “Neanderthal language was direct and task-relevant. It was capable of referring to events in the past, or future, or at distant places, but only in ways connected to a context shared with the listener.” -Thomas Wynn, Frederick Collidge.

Human language fractures and divides itself naturally as humans spread and lose contact with one another. Neanderthal language evolved in the same manner, yet with even smaller groups and even less outside communication. For humans the next valley over would have a different dialect, for Neanderthals the next family would have a different dialect. Neanderthals did not venture far outside of their clan territory – why was this the case? Was it caused by the inability to communicate over long distances? Or did the isolation of small family groups create the lack of long distance language? It is impossible to know, and certainly impossible to assign any causality. The more reasonable answer is that the Neanderthal personality and their language habits were one and the same. Two sides of the same coin, inseparable and feeding off one another, creating a feedback loop of xenophobia and familial dialects.

Burial and Ritual

The Consequence of Life: Burial

Neanderthals intentionally buried their dead. This statement has been controversial ever since the 1908 discovery of a burial at La Chapelle-aux-Saints France. Every detail of that burial has been questioned skeptically since its discovery, but an immense 1999-2012 study of Neanderthal burials by New York University and France's National Center for Scientific Research has shown that not only was that a burial but it is by no means the only one or the most complex. Neanderthals treated their dead unlike any animal before them, understanding why is key to understanding their mind.

Shanidar Cave, in Iraqi Kurdistan

At Shanidar Cave in Iraqi Kurdistan, an adult Neanderthal male was killed in a rockfall. Near to the rockfall, his family built a small pile of stones (a tumulus) with some chert stone points placed on top. They also build a large fire nearby. Another burial at Shanidar Cave, famously called The Flower Burial, is a male aged 35-40 years laying on his left side in the fetal position. His body is surrounded by flower pollen, which were the remnants of flowers placed around his grave. These were placed there intentionally, whether by a Neanderthal or by a Persian jird (a type of gerbil-rodent) is highly debated. These specific flowers have medicinal properties which lends weight to the Neanderthal side, yet pollen is strewn through multiple layers from jird activity...and the consensus (as far as I can tell) is that team jird has won.

Looking out from the Shanidar Cave

The dastardly Persian Jird

At La Chapelle-aux-Saints, two children and an adult Neanderthal were buried around 50 kya. Their family dug pits in the cave for the burials, and the children face each other possibly for ceremonial reasons. Their bodies are also surrounded by animal bones. For years people thought the bones and bodies had washed into natural cavities, but the geology “cannot be explained by natural events...there is no sign of weathering and scavenging by animals.” -William Rendu. This is a sign that the bodies were immediately covered after burial, lending serious weight to the idea of a burial practice. The adult has a tumulus of stones built on top of its grave, stones which came from outside the cave. A Neanderthal burial at La Ferrassie cave included a large stone slab over the body. All of these items of evidence: the immediate covering of the body, the creation of a tumulus, and funerary slabs are examples of burial practices. This behavioral phenomenon requires a complexity of thought presumed to have been uniquely human.

The Neanderthal burial site at La Chapelle-aux-Saints cave, France

Le Regourdou

The most impressive Neanderthal burial is at Le Regourdou cave. Here, a Neanderthal was buried (around 70 kya) surrounded by stone points and brown bear bones. This burial has some of the best evidence for grave goods, the stone points were possibly weapons, and the brown bear bones were possibly hunting trophies or trinkets. The human practice of leaving grave goods is tied to the idea of an afterlife and symbolic reasoning. If Neanderthals left grave goods, were they thinking the same thoughts? There are 33 known Neanderthal burials, with more than half associated with stone tools or animal bones, and at La Ferrassie cave a bone fragment has a series of intentional parallel cuts. “Grave goods may or may not relate to metaphysical notions of an afterlife or bodily extension; they probably speak more of self-expression and concepts of ownership. It may well be that neither existed in Neanderthal societies.” -Paul Pettitt.

Le Regourdou Cave under excavation in 1964

The uniqueness of this burial does not end there, on top of the grave is a giant (850 kg/1870 lbs) limestone slab, a true funeral slab. Built on the slab was a tumulus of large stones, and on top of that was a layer of burnt sand and various artifacts including more brown bear bones. Regourdou is the first tomb. Yet the strangeness does not even end there. Around the grave are about 20 man-made ditches. These are either lined, filled, or covered with stones, and their purpose is unknown. The only clue is one such small ditch, carefully lined with stones and covered with a limestone slab and a tumulus. Inside, is a nearly complete brown bear skeleton. “It is difficult to see how this could be a natural accumulation.” -Eugene Bonifay. The entire grave site is spectacular. It includes a Neanderthal tomb complete with grave goods and a fire ritual, along with multiple brown bear tombs. This burial is radically different than other Neanderthal burials, possibly connoting an elevated social status or the individual's symbolic relation to bears. Who was this person? Who took the time to built such an elaborate tomb, complete with little bear tombs? Since Neanderthals came together in extended clan groups of up to 40, it is possible that this Neanderthal was the leader of one such group. It is also just as possible that this Neanderthal's clan of 8-15 took years or decades to build the tomb. This tomb raises many strange and unforeseen questions...is this evidence of a social hierarchy? What relation did bears have to this person? How did Neanderthals lift a funeral slab weighing around 1900 pounds? Explaining this tomb is the deepest mystery in all of anthropology.

Brown Bears are kept at the Regourdou site as a tourist attraction

How Neanderthals Treated Death

In general, most Neanderthal burials are simple compared to ours, and were “body-centered” -Jean-Jacques Hublin. The most locationally unique Neanderthal burial is at Sima de los Huesos Spain, where deep within the cave around 30 bodies were tossed into shafts as a burial. This occurred around 500 kya, and is disputed whether these were Neanderthals or Heidelbergensis. The first undisputed burial evidence is from around 90 kya. Most burials are shallow graves dug into soft midden soil, near the living areas at the mouths of caves and rock shelters. While originally burials were not separated from the rest of a site, at Kebara cave there is evidence that bodies were buried deeper within the cave over time. Eventually Neanderthals began to associate certain areas of a cave with burials. Neanderthals tended to bury their dead within the cave or by the entrance, whereas humans mainly buried their dead by the entrance or on the terrace of caves.

Kebara Cave, at Mount Carmel, Israel

While many bodies were put in a fetal position, not all were. Some bodies had bones stained with hematite (rust-red iron ore), which was either sprinkled or painted on the body (when mixed with vegetable seed oil or animal fat). There is evidence of defleshing at burials, either for ritual or for cannibalism. Sometimes a body was disarticulated to fit in a grave. At Mount Cerceo Italy around 57 kya, a Neanderthal's head was bashed in to reveal the brains, and the hole was later enlarged and the edges smoothed so it could be used as a bowl. Other evidence of cannibalism points towards a general similarity with animal butchery, like at El Sidron cave in Spain a family of 12 was overwhelmed by another clan, killed, and eaten. While funerary slabs show respect for the dead, cannibalism shows that sentimentality was fleeting and at times hunger prevailed.

Mount Cerceo, Lazio, Italy

The construction of tombs and nutritional cannibalism were not practiced everywhere at all times. Neanderthal burial practices were just as varied as contemporaneous human burials. There were burials of individuals (sometimes only parts of individuals) and burials of groups. Groups were either buried at the same time (as in La Ferrassie), or not (as in Shanidar). Most burials were dug into the cave floor, but some used natural fissures or depressions, and some even widened natural pits. Strangely enough, at some places bones were unceremoniously pushed away from the living space, not even buried at all. “Aquitaine and Levant contain relatively large numbers of burials as well as places of multiple burial, which might suggest that burial was practiced more widely in these areas and that, by contrast, Neanderthals in other regions either did not bury their dead, or did not practice it frequently.” -Paul Pettitt. A universal feature is that children and infants were given more elaborate burials, and there was no distinction between male and female burials. While the most famous burials are within caves, just as many burials were by rock shelters. “If there was any general means of disposal of the dead in Neanderthal society we shall never recapture it as it is obviously archaeologically invisible.” -Paul Pettitt.

Illustration of the burial of Ferrassie 5, including the stone points associated with the burial as grave goods. By Emmanuel Roudier

If there is any rhyme or reason to the location of Neanderthal burials, it may be due to inter-clan competition. “These are regions...that Neanderthals were particularly numerous, and it is tempting to suggest that the practice of burial may have been connected to population size and perhaps to a sense of territoriality.” -Paul Pettitt. While this is an interesting thought, since we only have around 30 burials of a species which included millions of individuals over hundreds of thousands of years, the most insightful burials have probably not even been found. We do know that they continued burying their dead up until the last Neanderthal.

There was no single Neanderthal mindset towards burial. Their treatment of the dead exists in a gray area between elaborate stone tombs and no burial at all. While tombs and grave goods are reflective of the idea of an afterlife, “...as if they recognized some stage after death.” -Eric Delson, cannibalism and the lack of burial signify that bodies immediately lost their connection to the individual. Tombs and grave goods may only signify memorials and the idea of individual possession, not symbolizing an afterlife at all. Since there is so much local variation, it is possible that some Neanderthals recognized an afterlife and other did not. The understanding of an afterlife may have been a cultural trait, passed down from generation to generation within a family group. If Neanderthal linguistic variation was centered around the family unit, it is conceivable that cultural variation in burial practices were also. The burial at Le Regourdou is the most confusing...what was the connection between that individual and brown bears, and why did that connection have to be formalized in death? We will never know for sure.

The Cult of the Cave Bear

A sketch of a Neanderthal next to cave bears, by Emmanuel Roudier

The connection between bears and Neanderthals is not isolated to Le Regourdou. In the early 20th century, there were multiple discoveries of cave bear bones in strange positions, the most famous of which is Drachenloch cave. Drachenloch was famously excavated by Emil Bachler and Theophil Nigg. At the time their discoveries were revolutionary, but in the intervening years everything they did has been disavowed and undone by the archeological community.

Drachenloch Cave

They found cave bear bones placed in strange positions, surrounded by stones. They found ditches filled with bear bones and topped with slabs. They found a cave bear skull with a bone stuck through its cheek, and skulls placed on top of rocks. As it turns out, cave bears scratch out nests, making bones and small rocks collect in crevices. Those bones and rocks are then saved from erosion, giving the impression that they were placed there. Due to rockfalls, large slabs then fall on collections of bones, forming the impression of a burial. With thousands of bones in a single cave, and thousands of years of bear activity, it is not impossible that one bone would be lodged through another.

The infamous cave bear skull

Emil Bachler began his excavation already believing in the cult of the cave bear and didn't leave detailed records of context. He wasn't even there most of the time. The lead excavator Theophil Nigg was there most of the time and his notes completely contradict Bachler's. Bachler said that the bear graves were “obviously man-made”, had slabs laying on them, and that small walls were associated with the bear graves. Nigg's notes report the exact opposite of all these claims.

It was a small chamber with sloping walls...the bears...dug out their lair, forming, with the complicity of the sloping walls, the most beautiful trap for prehistorians one could imagine. When the overlying material had been removed, the little chamber was surrounded by a circle of bear skulls, oriented in all directions, but for the most part horizontal and lying in place...The work of the bears and the unconscious elimination of all the little bones had sufficed to produce a structure such that one could hardly doubt the intervention of man.” -Andre Leroi-Gourhan (speaking about the cave at Les Furtins)

The idea that Neanderthals had a cave bear based religion was popular in academic circles throughout the 1960s and 70s, and popularized by the book The Clan of the Cave Bear. While many parts of that book still stand...the Neanderthals have names which include bilabial phonemes, and only use sign language (the book was written in 1980, and the Neanderthal hyoid bone was found in 1983). The cult of the cave bear has also not stood up to modern research. Reality is much more ridiculous than fiction, the true meaning of the actual bear graves at Le Regourdou is completely unknown. While Drachenloch is a Neanderthal burial, the fantasies of Emil Bachler live on into the 21st century.

All relevant conceptions of that kind are either products of a certain mental climate at the time of the discovery of the fossils or of ideologies...the discussion of religious customs among recent hunter gatherers proves that what remains of the practice of their cult differs markedly from the fossil remains found in the Mousterian bear caves. An examination of fossil bone formations...makes clear that supposed ancient bear cult sites are bone beds of natural origin. The characteristic appearance of the sites is a result of the activities of the bears themselves and of geological and sedimentary processes.” -Ina Wunn

Ina Wunn

The Birth of Technology

The Birth of Technology

Our genus Homo has been making tools for the last 2.5 million years. Neanderthals adopted the Acheulean industry from their Homo Erectus forebears, eventually inventing their own industry called Mousterian. When humans and Neanderthals met we adopted their technology, and the late Neanderthal toolkit is the same as early humans. Mousterian sites can be either human or Neanderthal based on what fossils are found, and some have no fossil record. The Neanderthal toolkit changed very little over 100s of thousands of years, they suffered from serious technological inertia. Even after adopting the Neanderthal industry, early humans sites often show more variability in style. Why did Neanderthal technology remain so stable? Possibly they weren't as creative as early humans, reinforced by the small population size which kept the rate of invention low. For now, let's examine what they did invent.

A chart showing the overlap of hominins and tool industries

A map showing the distribution of bi-facial tools during the Acheulean
The distribution of Mousterian sites across Europe and Asia

Mousterian tools are defined by the use of soft hammer percussion. Neanderthals would use either bone, wood, or antler hammers to make their stone tools. This led to a relatively simple bone industry, in comparison to early human bone industry. What is found in the record are lots of stone flakes, hand axes, and spears, what is not found are wooden objects. Presumably Neanderthals, as well as previous hominins created lots of complex wooden tools which were not preserved.

Another chart showing the overlap of hominins and tool industries

The Hand Axe

The mainstay of Neanderthal technology was the hand axe. They used hand axes for butchering, digging, chopping wood, removing bark, throwing at prey, or chipped them away to create flake tools. Neanderthal hand axes are almost always symmetrical, which was certainly intended by the designer. Why was this the case? Symmetry reduces the necessary force when using the object as a cutting tool. Anna Machin and others in a 2007 study demonstrated that symmetry in hand axes is only useful when it is localized around the tip of the hand axe, the rest of the object being symmetrical did not add more cutting power to the tool. This is quite a strange fact, since most Neanderthal hand axes are entirely symmetrical. Why would a Neanderthal make the whole piece symmetrical?

Such is the perfection of the carving on some hand axes that they give the impression that the artist took great pleasure in them...we are unable to pronounce from this...whether it was art or the utility of the hand axe that was being sought by making them so well. Although in our heart of hearts we are sure that they were searching for beauty, aesthetics, as they could have achieved the same efficiency with cruder pieces.” -Benito del Rey.

A Lower Palaeolithic hand axe made ca 400 kya found at Hoxne, England, probably made by Homo Erectus or Heidelbergensis. Strikingly straight, symmetrical, and attractive, this hand axe is a wonderful example of palaeolithic thought and design

Whether or not Neanderthals made symmetrical hand axes for an aesthetic purpose is debated, but Neanderthals did recognize symmetry in other objects as well. The utilitarian function and aesthetic function of a hand axe may have been tied together in a Neanderthal mind, with no distinction between making a beautiful hand axe and an effective hand axe.

A symmetrical Mousterian hand axe, this is the first scientific sketch of a hand axe, by John Frere in 1800

Not all hand axes were made equal. They come in all types of stone, ranging in many different colors. Some included fossils in their designs, either shells or sea urchins. The use of color and the positioning of fossils in hand axes shows a serious level of thought behind owning a hand axe. It was not only for strict utilitarian purposes, but certain hand axes were more valuable than others based on their aesthetic qualities. Special and rare rocks (obsidian and possibly ones with fossils) were traded between Neanderthal clans, up to distances of hundreds of miles. These passed through multiple clans' territories, showing that they were not only valued by a single member within a group, but valued within all groups. This is evidence of a more general culture operating behind the individual clans. Neanderthals shared a taste for these rare and aesthetically interesting objects, and it is this mental culture which united the disparate clans through trade.

A Neanderthal hand axe with a shell fossil from Norfolk England, made around 200 kya

A hand axe with a sea urchin fossil, made by Homo Heidelbergensis around 400 kya
An early Neanderthal (or Homo Erectus) flint scraper made from a sea urchin fossil, the fossil has been intentionally centered in respect to the design of the scraper

A Mousterian jasper hand axe found at Fontmaure France. Natural opening in the rock were used as finger grips, made around 40-80 kya

Acheulean hand axes in a variety of colors

An Acheulean hand axe from Cys-la-Commune France. Made 127-115 kya, it has a different type of rock directly at its center on both sides. When held in the hand your thumb naturally rests on this center spot and your fingers naturally rest on the spot on the opposite side

A different Acheulean hand axe from Cys-la-Commune France also made 127-115 kya. It has a red stain (not ochre) at the center and at the tip, it was intentionally flaked to have this design. When held in the hand, as with the previous hand axe, your fingers naturally rest on the center spot

One of the strangest artifacts comes not from Neanderthals, but from their predecessors Homo Heidelbergensis. Two large chert pieces of rock filled with coral fossils were found associated with Acheulean hand axes at Swanscombe, England. Either this piece of rock was carried around for some symbolic purpose, or it would have been used as raw material for decorated hand axes. It was found around 120 miles away from the only place in Britain with such rock, showing that it was valued by Heidelbergensis across the modern region of Kent. What does this piece signify, what does it tell us about their internal life? If it was kept as a manuport, then it must have had some symbolic context to a Heidelbergensis. If it was used for hand axes, it shows their long term planning capacity and also points to symbolic reasoning. Since hand axes with fossils were also made by Neanderthals hundreds of thousands of years later, it is possible that Neanderthals too shared similar mental processes regarding these objects.

One of two pieces of chert containing coral fossils associated with hand axes found at Swanscombe. It is not known whether these pieces were carried around in their present shape (a manuport), or were considered to be precious raw material for future hand axes. The only coal-bearing chert site in Britain is 193 km (120 miles) away from Swanscombe, this piece of rock must have been traded between hominin groups. It was mined, traded, and used by Heidelbergensis

The hand axe sculpture at Swanscombe Heritage Park, created in 2005. Humans today continue to create hand axes, albeit for quite different reasons

Neanderthals, like humans, built unique cultural variants into their technology. Hand axes were not excluded. Neanderthals in France and England, and Neanderthals in Germany had separate cultural traditions related to hand axes. The western tradition made symmetrical triangular heart shaped hand axes, and the eastern tradition made asymmetrically shaped bi-facial hand axes. These two traditions lasted from 115-35 kya. The lowlands and northern France were a cultural melting pot, a mixture of these two traditions where new unique traditions were born.

Distinct ways of making a hand axe were passed on from generation to generation and for long enough to become visible in the archeological record. This indicates a strong mechanism of social learning within these two groups and says something about the stability and connectivity of the Neanderthal populations...making stone tools were not merely an opportunistic task. A lot of time, effort, and tradition were invested and these tools carry a certain amount of socio-cultural information, which does not contribute directly to their function.” -Karen Ruebens.

A map of the two Neanderthal hand axe traditions. The MTA is the western tradition, KMG is the eastern, and MBT is a mixture of the two

Scrapers, Knives, and Spears

Neanderthals also made racloirs (French for scraper), a thin flint flake used for scraping hides or bark. It may have also been used more like a knife. Neanderthals also made points, which were specifically hafted to a spear or dart. These were stuck onto sticks using bitumen and some kind of lashing to create a spear. Neanderthals heated birch sap to use as an adhesive. The method of obtaining pitch they used is called dry distillation. Neanderthals would have used something bowl shaped (maybe an animal skull) to catch the pitch, and placed a small rock in the bowl for the pitch to harden onto. Then they would cover this with rolls of birch bark, then cover it all with ash. After that, Neanderthals would put straw or another combustible material over the ash pile and light it. The bark needs to achieve a temperature of 400 degrees centigrade (752 degrees Fahrenheit), any less and the pitch won't condense, any more and the birch bark will burn. Modern recreations have failed at this process, after 8 hours of burning one would only gather a small amount of pitch. Somehow Neanderthals scaled up this process to create the necessary amount of pitch for multiple weapons. They had certainly mastered this process, to the point that today we cannot even recreate it correctly. This was the first industrial process, and requires a large amount of knowledge and intelligence. Learning and mastering such a complex process would require trial and error over the course of many generations. Teaching such a process to adults or children would require complex theoretical language.

A bone lissoir, or animal hide scraper. Found in France, made around 45-51 kya by Neanderthals

Mousterian Neanderthal spear heads. Such spear points have been found in Germany, illustration by Libor Balak

Their Stonework

There is a simpler way to attach a stone point to a spear, but did not go down that path. They invented a difficult yet effective industrial process to achieve what their ancestors had been doing only haphazardly...the same holds true for their stone crafting skills (called knapping). Neanderthals invented a method called the Levallois technique. The idea is to create stone flakes, but this cannot be done from any old rock. First, you must turn your lumpy rock into a semi-uniform oval-like shape called a core. This process requires short and neat blows, always keeping the end result in mind, “There seems to be a goal involved.” -Metin Eren. Once you have an oval shaped core, you chip away the edges to create a gentle convexity, this means that when you do create a flake it will be sharp on all its edges. Once you have a core with gentle convexity, you must make a final and perfect strike to break off a flake. This last coup de grace must be at a particular angle to create a flake, too high and you chip off bits, too low and you crack the core and lose all your work. This is a very delicate process and extremely difficult to master, “It took me 18 months to master the Levallois technique, and that's after I had been flint knapping for a number of years.” -Metin Eren. Once you have your perfect flake, you must reshape the core and start all over again. It is remarkable that Neanderthals would discover and master such a difficult technique.

A diagram of how to prepare a core and remove a flake using the Levallois technique

A reconstruction of a Neanderthal knapping

An example of Neanderthal craftsmanship is at Marjorie's Cave, in the Netherlands. At this cave, researchers were able to piece together a core made up of 38 individual flakes, triple the number of any other core reconstructions. The knapper began by preparing the core, trimming off small flakes from the sides which were not preserved at the site. The knapper then trimmed off the top and bottom to create the distinctive tortoise shaped core. The knapper then found an area with distal convexity (a convex horizontal slope) at the top of the core and struck off a large flake. Even with a final product the knapper was not finished. The Neanderthal then rotated the core 90 degrees, and found a new spot with distal convexity for the next strike (the newly found distal convexity made up the lateral convexity before rotation). The knapper reshaped the core by taking off three smaller flakes, spotted the distal convexity, and again made a final strike. The knapper did this strike-rotate-strike pattern a total of 7 times before using the entirety of the core. Not only was the knapper an expert at resource management, but every flake made from this core is the same size. This craftsman was not some lumbering brute, but an expert. What is going on in the mind of such a craftsman? Processes which were considered distinctly human, such as long term goal oriented thought, and a fluid exchange between mental awareness and physical muscle memory.

First the action was divided into discrete phases...second, each phase was guided by a distinct perceptual cue, the distal convexity...third the knapper responded to changing conditions of the core, adjusting technique to maximize Levallois flake size and maintain core productivity. Fourth, there was an overarching hierarchy to the entire task, with an overall goal (Levallois flakes), subroutines (the phases), and sub-subroutines (identify distal convexity, configure lateral convexity, prepare platform, strike off Levallois flake). This was not ad hoc flaking or a rote sequence. It was a flexible strategy...finally the knapper followed at least one rule: rotate the core 90 degrees before examining for a new distal convexity.” -Thomas Wynn, Frederick Collidge.

Thomas Wynn (left), and Frederick Collidge (right)

Wooden Artifacts

Neanderthals did not only master stone, but had advanced wooden tools as well. While wooden objects are rarely found, Mousterian tools have been found on Greek islands suggesting that Neanderthals arrived there via (dugout) canoes around 110 kya. Other Neanderthal tools found on Crete have been dated to around 170 kya, although they could be from Homo Erectus (which only intensifies the significance of the findings). It is known that Homo Floresiensis traveled to the Indonesian island of Flores around 1 million years ago, most likely in a dugout canoe. In Schoningen Germany researchers found 8 wooden throwing spears in a coal mine. These have been dated to around 380-400 kya and were probably made by Homo Heidelbergensis. This is the first evidence of big game hunting. These throwing spears have been designed to have a center of gravity in the front third of the shaft, similar to professional javelins today. If Heidelbergensis was using wooden throwing spears hundreds of thousands of years before Neanderthals, it is likely that Neanderthals had inherited this technology. A Mousterian point has also been found lodged in an animal vertebra delivered with a parabolic trajectory, lending more weight to Neanderthal javelin use. Other finds at Schoningen were a charred wooden skewer, a wooden throwing stick (boomerang), and most importantly sticks incised at one end which may have been mounts for stone blades. If this is the case, these are the first composite weapons (a hatchet) that our genus made. Since almost all wooden tools degrade, it is not too far fetched to think that the later Neanderthals and humans kept using these pieces of technology which became invisible to the archaeological record. If that is the case, then Neanderthals had composite one handed weapons. One single cache of wooden weapons and the entire history of technology is rewritten, Homo Heidelbergensis were the master craftsmen of their era. What else is out there waiting to be discovered?

One of the Schoningen Throwing Spears

An artist's depiction of a flint Mousterian hatchet

A comparison between Homo Sapiens and Homo Floresiensis. A 2014 study by Robert Eckhardt and others concluded that Homo Floresiensis was in fact a human with down syndrome, and not a distinct species. Kudos to the random person's shirt

While it is known that Homo Habilis picked food out of its teeth starting between 1.9-1.6 million years ago, it is not known when the toothpick was invented. A recent discovery of a Neanderthal tooth has revealed that this individual had an oral disease which created painful inflammation. This tooth also included grooves which were most likely made by a toothpick. “This individual attempted to alleviate the discomfort caused by periodontal disease. This disease usually causes bloody and inflamed gums, so the systematic use of toothpicks could mitigate sore gums.” -Marina Lozano. While the toothpick seems like a minor invention, it is the first evidence of the adaption of technology to dental hygiene.

Clothing and Shelter

Neanderthals, like humans, shared a desire to remove themselves from inclement weather. At Molodova Ukraine, Neanderthals created a large mammoth bone structure around 44 kya. This circular structure was up to 26 feet across at its widest point, and included 116 bones including mammoth skulls, jaws, leg bones, and 14 tusks. Some bones were decorated with carvings and ochre. Inside were 25 hearths showing that it was occupied over a long course of time. This structure could fit a large family, maybe multiple families. “This mammoth bone structure could be described as the basement of a wooden cover or as a windscreen...Neanderthals purposely chose large bones of the largest available mammal, the woolly mammoth, to build a structure...The mammoth bones have been deliberately selected – long and flat bones, tusks, and connected vertebrae – and were circularly arranged.” -Laetitia Demay. Even when Neanderthals chose to live in caves, they generally selected caves with south-facing openings for maximal sunlight. At Bruniquel Cave in France around 47.6 kya Neanderthals left artifacts hundreds of feet deep within the cave, as well as leaving smoke residue high on walls (suggesting that they used torches to guide their way).

Paleolithic clothing and tools, by Emmanuel Roudier

Neanderthals were not the only members of our genus to build structures. At Terra Amata in France, Homo Heidelbergensis around 400-200 kya built structures up to 49 feet long which would fit multiple families. The evidence of this building and its size are primarily from post holes, and of course any extrapolations from such evidence are disputed. Another even older site, discovered near Tokyo Japan, includes 10 post holes in the shape of 2 pentagons. This possibly indicates two separate huts. The post holes on the southern side were slightly wider, suggesting this was the entrance. These huts were even older than the structure at Terra Amata, these huts were made by Homo Erectus around 500 kya.

A drawing of the structure at Terra Amata, made by Homo Heidelbergensis around 400-200 kya

An artist's impression of the structure at Terra Amata
A drawing of one of the structures near Tokyo Japan, made by Homo Erectus around 500 kya

Neanderthals, like humans, also shared a desire to cloth themselves. From a study by Nathan Wales, Neanderthals covered most of their bodies (up to 80%) when living in cold environments, less so during warmer periods. Neanderthals would have worn gloves and shoes, but only wore hats during the coldest periods. Neanderthals wore furs or animal skins, either tied or draped over the body. Whether they had tight fitting or tailored clothing is highly debated. Due to rapid heat loss, some researchers have suggested that Neanderthals would not have survived in the environments they did without close fitting clothing. A scraper made in Germany around 100 kya by Neanderthals had organic material soaked in tannin on it. This substance is found in oak bark and is used to make leather. If Neanderthals did make fitted clothing, they did not have the bone needles, but would use microliths or wooden tools to poke holes in leather for threading. Stone awls have been found, lending weight to this hypothesis. A Neanderthal at La Ferrassie has severe wear on its teeth, mirroring the wear on the teeth of older Inuit women of the 19th and early 20th century. Inuit women of this time period spent a lifetime chewing leather boots every morning to soften them, it is possible Neanderthals used the same technique. The emergence of clothing may also be tied to the evolution of clothing-specific body lice, which adapted to humans around 170 kya.

A Neanderthal stone awl

An artist's rendition of a Neanderthal wearing warm semi-fitted clothing and a necklace

A reconstruction of a Neanderthal wearing warm clothing, using a bone as a clasp
A striking reconstruction of a Neanderthal wearing an animal pelt head covering. "Neanderthal Female Reconstruction" by Viktor Deak

Mousterian Neanderthals wearing different types of winter hats, by Libor Balak

A reconstruction of a Neanderthal woman in woven grass and animal pelt clothing

Fire and Coal

Neanderthals not only built fires, but they used coal as well. At Les Canalettes France around 73.5 kya, Neanderthals exploited a local outcropping of coal, burning it with wood. This added to the duration of the burn and allowed easier rekindling at a later point. Wood and coal fires used 4x less wood than solely wooden fires, exhibiting clear knowledge of this material's combustible properties. Neanderthals probably struck flint and iron pyrite to create sparks, and would have conserved fire and transported it between sites. While the evidence of coal use is only at one site, the distribution of coal during this period suggests that coal use may have been widespread. In fact, the use of fire began before Neanderthals. The invention has been pinned down to around 400 kya by Homo Heidelbergensis. “Many scientists have thought Neanderthals had some fires but did not have continuous use of fire...we were not expecting to find a record of so many Neanderthal sites exhibiting such good evidence of the sustained use of fire over time.” -Paola Villa. The lack of fire before 400 kya did not stop early hominins from penetrating into the cold dark reaches of Europe. Homo Erectus was able to make camps in frozen ice age England around 800 kya, without fire or well fitting clothes. How they survived such brutal conditions, we do not know but, “This confirms a suspicion we had that went against the opinions of most scientists, who believed it was impossible for humans to penetrate into cold, temperate regions without fire.” -Paola Villa.

Homo Erectus, the paleo-arctic explorer. A reconstruction by paleoartist John Gurche

John Gurche working on one of his models

A Final Burst of Brilliance

While the vast majority of Neanderthal sites are either Acheulean or Mousterian, a third more complex culture called Chatelperronian is also associated with Neanderthals. It is understood that both Neanderthals and humans were using Chatelperronian between 45-40 kya. Chatelperronian continues the Levallois technique for stonework but is more complex than Mousterian in practically every way. Bone and ivory began to be used, with bone awls replacing Mousterian stone ones, and foot long ivory spear points have been found. The most significant difference is the adoption of strictly symbolic items: necklaces of intentionally pierced fox and marmot teeth, and rings and pendants made of ivory. Neanderthal and human Chatelperronian stretched across southern France and northern Spain, it was not some behavioral hiccup within a few clans. This complicates the story of late Neanderthal behavior, How did they know to make such items? Was this capacity for intellectual progress simply hiding within the Neanderthal mind, brought out by some extra-ordinary thought or human cultural influence? Or had Neanderthal culture been slowly building to this point following their unique path of symbolic and cultural development?

Chatelperronian Neanderthal bone and stone pendants, from Grotte du Renne

The most obvious explanation for Chatelperronian complexity is that humans taught them. Recent evidence from a 2012 paper by Jean-Jacques Hublin at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, and a 2014 paper by Tom Higham at Oxford have shed interesting clues on the timing of this period. From J. J. Hublin, a Chatelperronian Neanderthal at Saint-Cesaire lived around 41.5 kya, with the Chatelperronian Neanderthal period at Grotte du Renne lasting from 44.5-41 kya. When Neanderthals began to use this culture around 45 kya, humans had only begun to spread across Europe. At that time, we were by the mouth of the Danube river and in Greece, possibly also in southern Italy. We were still hundreds of miles away from the Chatelperronians in southern France and northern Spain. This adds weight to the idea that Neanderthals independently invented this culture. Adding to this evidence is work by Fransesco d'Errico who laid out a novel method of determining human authorship in a 2013 speech at the ESHE (European Society for Human Evolution). Due to his team's research at the University of Bordeaux, they found a noticeable difference between Neanderthal Chatelperronian and human Chatelperronian. This difference is in the sequence of steps in its production, both humans and Neanderthals were making the same tools yet with different production processes. If this is the case, then Neanderthals were probably not copying their human instructors, but had invented a new method to make such items.

If Neanderthals created Chatelperronian at around 45 kya then the later human populations who used it must have picked it up from them. This is an astounding example of behavioral flexibility on both our parts, their unique act of invention and our ability to learn. This is strong evidence that Neanderthals had the same mental and behavioral complexity as Anatomically Modern Humans. “The evidence for cognitive inferiority is simply not there.” -Paola Villa.

A Chatelperronian Neanderthal bone necklace from Grotte du Renne Cave, France


While Neanderthal technology halted with their extinction, the tools and hand axes they used stayed put in the earth. Tens of thousands of years later, humans would find these unknown objects across the world. Not quite sure what they were, hand axes and flint arrowheads acquired supernatural properties, they were called Thunderstones. In the classical era, Romans would sew thunderstones with bits of coral into dog collars as a remedy against canine insanity. In Sweden they offer protection against elves and in Britain protection against both elves and fairies. In Scandinavia in general they were worshiped as family gods to ward away spells and witchcraft. As an offering beer was poured over them, and they were sometimes anointed with butter. In Switzerland hand axes were tied to a sling, whirled three times, and flung at your front door. This was to prevent lightning strikes. In Italy thunderstones were hung around children's necks which protected against illness and the evil eye. In the French Alps they protect sheep, and in France in general were thought to ease childbirth. In the late 1600s a French ambassador gave a hand axe to the Prince-Bishop of Verdun as a magical healing amulet, it is still in the museum of Nancy today. In Britain they were called elf-shot, since they were shot by fairies to bewitch people. This phenomenon does not stop at the western world, in Burma thunderstones are used to ward off appendicitis and in Japan they are used to cure boils and ulcers.

In addition to Europe and Asia, the idea that such objects represented supernatural power was also found in the Americas. The Pawnee have an origin myth that they were given stone tools and weapons by the Morning Star. The K'iche' of Guatemala have a myth that a piece of flint fell from the sky and broke into 1600 pieces, each which became a god. As Europe expanded into the new world, its myths followed suit. In North Carolina and Alabama there was a tradition that if thunderstones were put in a fire they would protect your chickens from hawks. In Brazil they were used as a divining stone in order to locate gold, treasure, or water. These ideas most likely stem from the European myth that thunderstones protected domestic animals.

This myth began to fall apart even by the late 1500s. Michael Mercati thought that thunderstones were weapons of early races of men. In 1723 Antoine Laurent de Jussieu addressed the French academy with a paper entitled The Origin and Uses of Thunder-Stones which showed that travelers from around the world had brought stone weapons back to France, and they were the same as native thunderstones. The next year in 1724 Joseph-Francois Lafitau published a book showing a similarity between aboriginal customs and early Europeans. By 1800, John Frere published an article which included the first published picture of a hand axe. The demystification continued throughout the 19th century, with Charles Lyell's 1863 Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man resolving the dispute.