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ARC1DOH Essay: What does the archaeological record reveal about the behavioural repertoire of the Neanderthals?


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The Neanderthals were a robust, short and stocky people who lived between 300/250-35 k.y.a. mainly in Europe, the Middle East and central Asia who are source of great contention. Although they buried some of their dead, performed targeted hunting in groups, foraged, and made and adapted tools specific and indigenous to the locality, their humanity is under question. They traded raw materials with other Neanderthal groups, and with Homo sapiens through a large network, created artefacts with decoration, and used ochre pigment for paint. One particular group even performed artificial cranial modification for beauty. Neanderthals even show an ability to learn from others and their dwelling places were very similar to those of modern hunter-gatherers. Artefacts and fossils from the archaeological record prove one thing about these hominins: although they were a different species, in terms of behaviour, the Neanderthals were truly human.
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What does the archaeological record reveal about the behavioural repertoire of the
© Caroline Seawright
The Neanderthals were a robust, short and stocky people who lived between 300/250-35
k.y.a. mainly in Europe, the Middle East and central Asia who are source of great
contention. Although they buried some of their dead, performed targeted hunting in
groups, foraged, and made and adapted tools specific and indigenous to the locality,
their humanity is under question. They traded raw materials with other Neanderthal
groups, and with Homo sapiens though a large network, created artefacts with
decoration, and used ochre pigment for paint. One particular group even performed
artificial cranial modification for beauty. Neanderthals even show an ability to learn from
others and their dwelling places were very similar to those of modern hunter gatherers.
Artefacts and fossils from the archaeological record prove one thing about these
hominins: although they were a different species, in terms of behaviour, the
Neanderthals were truly human.
© Caroline Seawright
What does the archaeological record reveal about the behavioural repertoire of the
The Neanderthals produced tools of stone, wood, bone and antler, they hunted and
foraged for food, buried their dead and showed symbolic behaviour. They adopted living
patterns similar to, and, for a time, coexisted with anatomically modern humans. Yet
there is much controversy over the humanity of these hominins. This “large-brained,
social, tool-using group of humans who survived for more than 100,000 years in some of
the most physically demanding environments ever populated” (Shea 1998, p. S60) left
behind a large body of evidence which can be used to reveal the behavioural repertoire
of the Neanderthals.
The Neanderthals, Homo sapien neanderthalensis or Homo neanderthalensis, were
short and stocky with short limbs, who were more robust than modern humans. Their
faces were distinctive with large brow ridges and rather large noses. As they lived during
the Ice Age, they “seem to have developed a body form consistent with the minimisation
of body surface area and therefore heat loss” (Graves 1991, p. 518). The Neanderthals
lived during the last glacial period, between 300/250-35 k.y.a. (Arsuaga et al. 1993, p.
534; Mellars 1996, p. 3). Neanderthal remains can be found in Europe, the Middle East
and central Asia, and, although there is some controversy, have also have been found
near Morocco (Mellars 1996, p. 3). They were geographically widespread, so their
behaviour differed throughout the Neanderthal range (Hovers et al. 2003, p. 514).
Specific studies of Neanderthal groups (Belfer-Cohen & Hovers 1992; Golovanova et al.
1999; Gravina, Mellars & Bronk Ramsey 2005; Henry et al. 2004; Marean et al. 1998;
Pettitt 1997) cover Europe, central Asia and the Middle East, dating 250-32 k.y.a. (see
© Caroline Seawright
Figure 1). Along with general Neanderthal studies, these specific studies demonstrate a
wide range of Neanderthal behaviour covering burial, subsistence, tools, networking,
symbolism, coexistence with Homo sapiens and living patterns.
Figure 1: Neanderthal occupation in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Asia: Mezmaiskaya Cave, Russian Caucasus, 45-32 k.y.a.;
Europe: Grotte des Fées de Châtelperron, east-central France, 40-39 k.y.a. & 36-34.5 k.y.a. (Châtelperronian levels) and 39-36
k.y.a. (Aurignacian level) & Grotte de l'Hortus, southern France, 50-40 k.y.a.; The Middle East: Tor Faraj, southern Jordan, 69-49
k.y.a., Amud, Kebara, Tabun & Shanidar caves, The Levant, 166-45 k.y.a. & Kobe Cave, Iran, 250-35 k.y.a. (Belfer-Cohen & Hovers
1992; Golovanova et al. 1999; Gravina, Mellars & Bronk Ramsey 2005; Henry et al. 2004; Marean et al. 1998; Pettitt 1997)
There is an unusual amount of preservation of Neanderthal skeletons in the fossil record.
Something unusual happened to allow this to occur, with the most likely explanation
being deliberate burial (Gargett et al. 1989, p. 184). The relatively few burials were
simple interment (Hillson 2000, p. 2; Pettitt 2000, p. 358). The first Neanderthal burials,
representative of complex behaviour, occurred around 150 k.y.a. at Tabun (Langley,
Clarkson & Ulm 2008, p. 292). At Mezmaiskaya Cave, a partial Neanderthal skeleton
was found, dated 45-40 k.y.a., without ritual artefacts (Golovanova et al. 1999, pp. 83-
84). Although a few items, such as the notched bone with parallel lines (Langley,
© Caroline Seawright
Clarkson & Ulm 2008, p. 297) and flowers at Shanidar 4 (Belfer-Cohen & Hovers 1992,
p. 468; Gargett et al. 1989, p. 182), have been found in graves, there is a general lack of
grave goods in the archaeological record. Nonetheless, such “deliberate burials [imply]
the existence of some kind of strong social or emotional bonds within Neanderthal
societies” (Mellars 1996, p. 381). Burial may or may not indicate a belief in life after
death (Wunn 2000, p. 447), but this behaviour is a symbolic act stemming from close
social relationships within the group.
Sustenance gathering is evidence of a proficient hunter gatherer group with the cognitive
ability to understand the world around them. At Kobe Cave, Neanderthals preferred to
target the wild goats of the area - they smashed open long bones to extract the marrow
(Marean et al. 1998, p. S90). The Neanderthals of the Levant used hafted stone points
with impact fractures, similar to stone spears and arrow points used in North America
(Shea 1998, p. S51) for hunting on the steppes. At Mezmaiskaya Cave, faunal remains
show they favoured prime-aged bison, indicating that they hunted seasonally and
specifically targeted adult animals (Golovanova et al. 1999, pp. 84-85). Evidence from
Tor Faraj shows other foods eaten at the site - nuts, roots and tubers, palm tree fruits
and figs (Dusseldorp 2009, p. 43; Henry et al. 2004, p. 24). European Neanderthals ate
plant foods as a small but important part of their diet (Hoffecker 2002, p. 110).
Neanderthals also hunted small game including hares, rabbits, tortoises and other
reptiles, ate ostrich eggs (Dusseldorp 2009, p. 43; Langley, Clarkson & Ulm 2008, p.
302), and in the Levant and other Mediterranean sites, ate shellfish (Hoffecker 2002, p.
110-111). The archaeological record shows that Neanderthals targeted favourite
animals, hunted seasonally, and foraged for other foods. This cognitively advanced
© Caroline Seawright
behaviour involved understanding the seasons and cycles of life, and the ability of the
group to use it in their favour.
Group hunting is evidence of social relationships between Neanderthals which can be
seen in the archaeological record. The weapons Neanderthals used were heavy
throwing or thrusting tools. Along with the large amount of trauma evident on their
skeletons, this indicates that their hunting technique involved large numbers chasing
dangerous animals (Graves 1991, p. 519-520), such as the elephant killed with a
wooden spear (Wunn 2000, p. 431). To kill such large beasts, Neanderthals participated
in group hunting, showing that they had a pattern of mutual co-operation, and would
have shared the kill (Mellars 1996, p. 362). Food sharing would “almost certainly have
led to a very close integration of males and females in local groups” (Mellars 1996, p.
362). Tool making apprenticeship, another form of social integration, was a very long
process (Graves 1991, p.529), which would indicate that Neanderthals could
communicate with each other. The Neanderthal Levallios technique appeared across
Europe and Western Asia around 300 k.y.a. (Hagen & Hammerstein 2007, p.4). At
Mezmaiskaya Cave, Neanderthals made East European Micoquian Industry tools
(Golovanova et al. 1999, p. 85). Other indigenous industries included the
Châtelperronian, 45-33 k.y.a., the Uluzzian, 36-32 k.y.a., and the Szeletian, 35-30 k.y.a.
(Graves 1991, p. 522; Jochim 2002, pp. 64-65). The prolonged use and resharpening of
tools, such as Châtelperronian bone awls, required that knowledge to be communicated
down the generations (Wolpoff 2004, p. 537). Tool making and usage were social
activities, with traditions being passed down through the ages. Neanderthals must have
had close cooperation, strong social bonds and communication within their groups.
© Caroline Seawright
Evidence of intergroup exchange is that of exotic goods being dispersed throughout
Neanderthal sites. This evidence suggests that they travelled widely and had an
exchange network with other Neanderthal groups and Homo sapiens (Graves 1991, pp.
522-523; Speth 2004, p. 525). For this to have been possible, communication and similar
cognition was essential. Mellars (1996, p. 163) suggests that this trade relationship may
have been for more than goods, extending to an exchange of mates between the two
species. For this to have happened, the Neanderthal behavioural range must have
included language, social customs and an aptitude for symbolism.
A small number of Neanderthal bone artefacts have been found with visual symbolism in
the form of decoration. Symbolism is the ability to represent objects, people and ideas
with abstract visual, such as decorated artefacts, or vocal symbols (Langley, Clarkson &
Ulm 2008, p. 291). Some perforated bones, perhaps for personal decoration, have been
found at La Quina in southwest France dated 70-60 k.y.a. and Bocksteinschmiede in
west Germany approximately 110 k.y.a. (Mellars 1996, p. 373), and an incised bone
artefact at Taubach in Germany around 125–120 k.y.a. (Langley, Clarkson & Ulm 2008,
p. 292). Pieces of ochre have been discovered at a dozen Neanderthal sites in
southwest France (Mellars 1996, p. 69-70), which produce colours ranging from yellow to
deep maroon. Many of the pieces show evidence of use, such as grinding powder or
directly applying the colour to surfaces. These fragments first appeared around 60-55
k.y.a. as “pigment crayons and artefacts exhibiting pigment stains” (Langley, Clarkson &
Ulm 2008, p. 300). These artefacts show that Neanderthals enjoyed beauty.
Artificial changes related to physical beauty appears in the archaeological record in the
form of body modification. Neanderthal cranial deformation is “represented by Shanidar 1
© Caroline Seawright
and 5” at approximately 46 k.y.a. (Langley, Clarkson & Ulm 2008, p. 300). Infant head
binding is one of the most widespread forms of aesthetic modification throughout history,
which “implies a heretofore poorly documented personal aesthetic sense amongst these
early humans” (Trinkaus 1982, p. 199). This suggests that Neanderthals understood the
concept of beauty, supporting the idea of their use of symbolism in the forms of art.
Neanderthals certainly had the capacity for symbolic expression, although it was
displayed differently to that of Homo sapiens (Hovers et al. 2003, p. 518). Neanderthal
symbolic behaviour, that of burial, technological skill, social networks, art, music,
aesthetics, communication and adaptation manifests exponentially throughout time in the
archaeological record, with a rapid increase between 60 - 40 k.y.a., “suggestive of far
greater rates of symbolic and complex behavioural artefacts and features” (Langley,
Clarkson & Ulm 2008, p. 300). Burials started around 150 k.y.a., modified materials from
125 k.y.a., composite technology and pigmentation from 60 k.y.a., and the occurrence of
body modification around 46 k.y.a. (Langley, Clarkson & Ulm 2008, p. 300); Figure 2
indicates that there was a great increase in both behavioural complexity and symbolism,
indicating independent Neanderthal development in the lead up to the Châtelperronian
© Caroline Seawright
Figure 2: Occurrence of symbolic and complex behavioural instances in the Neanderthal archaeological record between 40-26 k.y.a.
as against OIS curve (Mellars 1996 cited in Langley, Clarkson & Ulm 2008, Figure 2, p. 300).
While symbolism was part of the Neanderthal culture, the creative explosion that
occurred coincided with their coexistence with Homo sapiens. One place where both
species lived was at Grotte des Fées de Châtelperron. The sandwiching of the modern
human Aurignacian between two Neanderthal Châtelperron levels demonstrate their
chronological coexistence, “and therefore potential demographic and cultural
interactions” (Gravina, Mellars & Bronk Ramsey 2005, p. 55). It highlights the
Neanderthal ability to learn new ideas from another people and make them their own.
The behavioural repertoire of the Neanderthals was so close to that of the archaic Homo
sapiens that social interaction could and did occur at certain settlements.
Neanderthal shelters and settlements can reveal much about Neanderthal behaviour and
their lives. At the Grotte des Fées mammoth tusks up to 2m in length were found in
association with hearths in the centre of the cave. This is “a discovery that seems
© Caroline Seawright
strongly reminiscent of the mammoth-tusk 'hut' structure” found in Châtelperronian strata
elsewhere in France (Gravina, Mellars & Bronk Ramsey 2005, p. 52). At Tor Faraj only
hearths, sitting in depressions, were found behind the cave's drip line (Henry et al. 2004,
p. 22). In conjunction with controlled use of fire, Neanderthals separated their activities
into different areas: a sleeping area, a central domestic area where wood-work and
butchering was done, an area for hide, bone and antler work, and an initial core
processing area and dumping area (Henry et al. 2004, p. 26-28). This behaviour, the
organisation of living space, was fundamentally along modern lines (Henry et al. 2004, p.
29). It is also evident that Neanderthals were able to adapt. They lived and worked in
separate parts of their shelters, lived in close contact with each other, and they were able
to change their environment to suit their needs. The use of fire and items for windbreaks,
like the mammoth-tusk hut, show that they could make their lives more comfortable.
Neanderthal behaviour can be deciphered from the archaeological record. They buried
some of their dead, understood and exploited nature for sustenance and created the
tools with which to do so and had social networks. They had the aptitude for symbolic
decoration and art, understood beauty, and lived with each other in social settings.
Neanderthal behaviour differs little from that of modern humans, and the evidence of
their lives can certainly be understood today. The archaeological record reveals that
while Neanderthals were a different species to Homo sapiens, in their behavioural
repertoire they clearly were human.
© Caroline Seawright
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Interwoven with the debate regarding the biologic replacement of Neanderthals by modern humans is the question of the degree to which Neanderthals and modern foragers differed behaviorally. We consider this question through a detailed spatial analysis of artifacts and related evidence from stratified living floors within a 49–69 k.y.a. rock shelter site, Tor Faraj, in southern Jordan. The study involves a critical evaluation of living floors, the identification of site structure, and the decoding of the site structure in an effort to understand how the inhabitants of the shelter organized their behaviors. The site structure of Tor Faraj is also compared to occupations of modern foragers in ethnographic and archaeological contexts. When the information from the excavation of Tor Faraj is considered with evidence from other late Middle Paleolithic sites, there seems to be little basis for the claims that constraints in the behavioral organization of Neanderthals led to their replacement by modern foragers.
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In the last two decades, the study of Palaeolithic religion has come to be of increasing concern to both scholars of the history of religion and archaeologists. In this paper the appropriateness of some recent views in the interpretation of the archaeological findings is re-evaluated. The conclusion of this study is that neither evidence of early ritual practises nor of belief in an afterlife can be endorsed. 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 results of palaeanthropologicalresearch prove that none of the early representatives of the genus Homo was capable of developing a complicated symbol system. Only in the middle Palaeolithic period Homo neanderthalensishad developed advanced intellectual abilities.But neither in connection with his hunting customs nor with his domestic activities can any traces of cult practice be found. Only the rare burials can be interpreted as a first sign of religious feelings. But there are no funeral rituals or funeral gifts. All assumptions that Neanderthal man already believed in an afterlife, are mere speculation. Theories of rituals during the lower and middle Palaeolithic belong to the realm of legend.
The Neanderthals populated western Europe from nearly 250,000 to 30,000 years ago when they disappeared from the archaeological record. In turn, populations of anatomically modern humans, Homo sapiens, came to dominate the area. Seeking to understand the nature of this replacement, which has become a hotly debated issue, Paul Mellars brings together an unprecedented amount of information on the behavior of Neanderthals. His comprehensive overview ranges from the evidence of tool manufacture and related patterns of lithic technology, through the issues of subsistence and settlement patterns, to the more controversial evidence for social organization, cognition, and intelligence. Mellars argues that previous attempts to characterize Neanderthal behavior as either "modern" or "ape-like" are both overstatements. We can better comprehend the replacement of Neanderthals, he maintains, by concentrating on the social and demographic structure of Neanderthal populations and on their specific adaptations to the harsh ecological conditions of the last glaciation. Mellars's approach to these issues is grounded firmly in his archaeological evidence. He illustrates the implications of these findings by drawing from the methods of comparative socioecology, primate studies, and Pleistocene paleoecology. The book provides a detailed review of the climatic and environmental background to Neanderthal occupation in Europe, and of the currently topical issues of the behavioral and biological transition from Neanderthal to fully "modern" populations.
The beginning of the Upper Palaeolithic is a watershed in European prehistory. It is generally characterized by a number of significant changes in stone and bone technology. It also roughly coincides with the appearance of fully modern humans on the continent. However, the precise nature of both the archaeological and biological changes, as well as the relationship between the two, is much debated (Nitecki and Nitecki 1994). In order to discuss these debates and the conflicting interpretations of evidence, a simple, traditional scenario will first be briefly presented.
Palaeolithic archaeologists have for some time been concerned with high resolution data, which is usually taken to mean intra‐site spatial patterning. This paper examines cases of such high resolution for the Middle Palaeolithic, and assesses exactly what such ‘flagship’ sites reveal about Neanderthal behaviour. Although such cases are rare, and most Middle Palaeolithic sites are just as informative albeit of lower resolution, an attempt is made to interpret what patterning is available. It can be explained by recourse to nothing more that simple human biomechanics, and, in enclosed sites, displays a simple spatial organization that does not differ from that of non‐human carnivores. The degree of repetition of such patterning suggests that simple spatial organization was an habitual element of the Neanderthal adaptation.
In southwestern Asia, both Neandertals and early modern humans are associated with the same Levantine Mousterian archaeological complex for tens of thousands of years. Thus, the Levantine Mousterian archaeological record offers the possibility of comparing long-term patterns of Neandertal and early modern human adaptation. Ecological considerations suggest that Levantine Mousterian subsistence strategies varied along a continuum paralleling contrasts between Mediterranean woodland and Irano-Turanian steppe ecozones. This hypothesis is tested with evidence for the production and use of Levallois points, which breakage patterns suggest were used as spear points. Stone spear points would have been advantageous mainly in intercept hunting and disadvantageous in encounter hunting. High frequencies of Levallois points among assemblages from the steppic interior and southern Levant and low frequencies of points among assemblages from the coastal and northern Levant suggest support for this model of Levantine Mousterian behavioral variability. Lithic assemblages associated with Neandertals exhibit higher point frequencies than those associated with early modern humans. This could suggest that in the Levant the adaptation of Neandertals was different from and possibly more predatory than that of early modern humans. © 1998 by The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. All rights reserved.