The NeandertalsStaring into the gloom, I imagine the cave’s ancient inhabitants,wrapped in bear skins, huddled near a fire. The haunches of areindeer roast in the fire.
A mother nurses her infant. Childrenplayfully throw pieces of bone into the flames. An old woman tendsthe wounds of a hunter with an herbal ointment.
The strong smellsof smoke, unwashed bodies, and rotting carcasses thicken the air.Until recently, nobody would have assumed that the above passage (RickGore, pp.6) was about how the Neandertals lived. However, recent studies haveshown that Neandertals are smarter than we first thought.
The geography of the Neandertals domain was quite odd. 230,000 yearsago Europe was filled with caves, marshes, and grasslands. It was a very harshand cold wilderness.
The Neandertals were in existence right in the middle ofthe Ice Age, and although occasional warm periods would create subtropicalconditions as far north as England for thousands of years, the glaciers wouldalways return and the Neandertals would always be forced south again. TheNeandertals could be found as far north as England and as far south as Spain,from Gibralter to Uzbekistan.Neandertal bones have been found in the Neander Valley and DusseldorfGermany, in Altamura, Italy and Vindija, Croatia.
These are major sites for theEuropean caves the Neandertals lived in. Although the Neandertals went to thesouthern tip of Italy, they never crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Africa. Theymigrated from central Europe to central Asia to the Middle East and always cameback. Their main mode of moving around was on their feet, and they usuallytravelled in bands of no more than 30 people.The Neandertals had broad noses, and scientists think this was to warmthe cold air.
They also had thick browridges, receding chins, high foreheads,and their skulls sloped back over their brains. They learned to hunt in groupsin order to kill the bigger game. The Neandertals lived with modern humans for10,000 years, but they didn’t change, and eventually it is believed the modernhumans conquered them with their more advanced technology.
Although not much is known about the Neandertal’s culture,anthropologists have some ideas of how they lived their life.It is believed by many that the Neandertals practiced cannibalism for adeath ritual. There is evidence of this on the skulls and big bones ofNeandertals. There are cut marks and some bones have been broken open and arewithout marrow. Why would they do this? Maybe they liked the way theirneighbors tasted, or maybe it was a ritual for a religion of theirs. There isother evidence they have a religion. One archaeologist found a carved andpolished ivory tooth, and since it looked to have no purpose as a tool, it ismost probably a spiritual object. The bodies of people were found in a cavewith flowers around them.
This also suggests some sort of religion.Scientists had always thought that the technology of the Neandertals was”primitive”. However, they have changed their minds.
“You need a lot of brainsfor flint knapping,” Jacques Pelegrin of the French Center for ArchaeologicalResearch. Recent excavations show that Neandertal tools required a high levelof craftsmanship and mental ability. During most of their existence,Neandertals have what is called Mousterian technology- flaked tools (i.e.scrapers and points) and this remained unchanged for 100,000 years. During thelast few thousand years of their lives, they developed what is calledChatelperronian technology- hafted points and more complex.
It was also thought that the Neandertals couldn’t speak. One theory isthat they communicated through mental telepathy, due to the large brains. Nowthough, anthropologists believe that the Neandertals spoke at least arudimentary language. A hyoid bone(the voice box hangs from it in the back ofthe throat) was found in a body recently. “They may not have had a language ascomplex as ours..
.. but at least they could talk to each other,” saidChristopher Stringer, a paleoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum inLondon.
The Neandertals were plagued by injuries and disease, but there isevidence that they were cared for by the group. They ate cave bears and aurochsand other big game, slicing off the skin with sharp flints. The skins theycured and wore draped over their bodies, and they made buildings resemblingteepees out of wood or mammoth bones and the hides of some animals.The Neandertals had a compassionate side, something not expected fromtheir big and squat appearance.
They cared for their sick and injured, and theyhad families, as a man, two women, and an infant were found buried together withpersonal decorations on them and pollen from wildflowers. Some think thatbodies were also disposed of in large caves for housecleaning.Still, one of the biggest questions of Neandertals today is whathappened to them? Nobody really knows. There are many theories, however.The Neandertals inhabited Europe from about 230,000 to 30,000 years ago.About 40,000 years ago the modern humans arrived. They lived peacefully side byside for 10,000 years and then all record of Neandertal life ends.
It isthought that the modern humans conquered and destroyed the Neandertals withtheir advanced technology. Or maybe the Neandertals interbred with the modernhumans and got slowly replaced, unable to compete. It is also possible that anatural disaster(like the Ice Age) caught them in the north and they were unableto leave, as they were surrounded by modern humans.
It is very surprising that there is no record of violence between theNeandertals and the modern humans. “I see confrontation. People who grow up inthe Middle East understand that. We don’t like each other. We rarelyintermarry, and we kill each other whenever we can. I don’t think you canprevent competition among societies,” said Ofer Bar-Yosef.
If that is so, thenmaybe the modern humans DID overthrow the Neandertals.All anthropologist know is that 35,000 years ago the Neandertalsmigrated one last time to the caves on the southern tip of Spain, and yet theynever once tried to get over to Africa. Why not?I see them again, chipping at flints and gazing down at herds ofelk and aurochs that grazed the rich grasslands below. Now,where their prey once wandered, the ships of many nations anchor.
Beyond them, Africa looms through the haze, filling me withwanderlust and questions. (Rick Grey, pp. 35)