Were Neandertals Human?

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      Hominid Evolution


                          DNA studies seem to suggest that Neandertals and modern humans are cousins, and that Neandertals are not direct ancestors to modern Homo sapiens.  But were they human in the sense that they shared common characteristics with us that we consider typically human?

            Several arguments suggest that they were not, that they possessed several aspects to their behavior which are not typical of modern humans:

1.      Examination of Neandertal stone tools suggest that they tended to make the same tools year after year.  This has led one researcher (Francois Bordes) to suggest that in this entire Mousterian period, covering perhaps 100,000 years there were four “tool kits” which represented distinct Neandertal tribes which all existed at the same time in southern France with each having separate origins, histories and traditions.  (Shreeve, 1995, p. 142=143.)

a.       This is remarkable when compared to the behavior of modern humans.  It meant that in a small area about the size of New Jersey, these four groups came and went for tens of thousands of years without mixing their cultures. 

b.      How can groups of “people” living almost side by side for thousands of years never interact enough to influence each others culture?

c.       Lewis Binford challenged Bordes view that these tool kits reflected different cultures and claimed that it wasn’t the people who varied, but the functions that they were performing, and that these different kits simply reflected what the people were doing at a particular place and time.  For example a conglomeration of sidescrapers could be evidence of a location where food preparation or hide scraping was being performed.

d.      Another British archeologist, Paul Mellars, suggested that this variability in the Mousterian tools was a function of time and not necessarily style or function.  That these differences reflected three distinct, successive technological cultures.

e.       Harold Dibble, however, claimed that these differences reflected simply the idea that as tools were used they wore down and were modified into other uses, and that most of the tools found in deposits are the garbage left over after a tool has been recycled and modified until it has lost its use.  We find what might be the only part of the original stone that couldn’t be used as a tool.—the byproduct of one last attempt to squeeze a little more use out of a rock.

f.        See discussion of the Carmel, Israel sites where the is relatively little difference between Neandertal and the tools of Homo sapiens.


2.      Neandertal seemed to belong to isolated social groups occupying a given range based upon the absence of flints farther than twenty miles away. (less than 1% of a given tool assemblage.

3.      Neandertals seemed to lack a basic human quality of planning ahead, and seem to have subsisted in the “now,” according to Lew Binford.

a.       Binford thinks that “poorly equipped groups” of Neandertals arrived at repeatedly used sites and only when a need arose did they construct new tools and then left them behind when they moved on.  In contrast modern hunter-gatherer groups take their tools with them, leaving behind  more bones. 

b.       Neandertals also didn’t appear to take advantage of salmon which were abundant in an area of France where they lived.  Although salmon remains are found in bear caves, only one salmon vetebra has been found in the caves occupied by Neandertals.  Despite the fact that nearby rivers contained plentiful spring time salmon, the Neandertals either lacked the means to catch and preserve the fish, or it never occurred to them to move to this seasonal resource.

c.       Likewise Neandertals apparent didn’t take advantage of the reindeer migrations which followed certain routes.  In contrast to later modern human sites, Neandertal sites are scattered more randomly rather than lined up along migration routes.  Neandertals seem to simply take whatever happened to wander into their territories rather than responding to prey patterns.

d.      Binford asserts that the Neandertals were opportunistic feeders who killed prey only on an “encounter basis.”  As Olga Stoffer said, “The feeling I get from them is that every day is the first day of their lives” (Shreeve, 1995, pp. 156).

e.       This idea of Neandertals as being opportunistic feeders who rarely left their territory is supported by anatomical evidence.  When comparing the femur cross sections of Neandertals to the later modern human, Cro-Magnons, it is found that the Neandertal femurs were equally thick in circumference  as opposed to the Cro-Magnon femur which had a distinct “pilaster” or thickened ridge along the trailing edge of the bone.  This suggests to Erik Trinkaus that Neandertals wee more accustomed to moving continuously in all directions in an irregular pattern, whereas the Cro-Magnons had a strait-on gait.  Trinkaus surmised that the Cro-Magnons tended to walk in a particular direction as if he had a particular destination in mind, while the Neandertals tended to wander around with little plan.

Others find this dubious in view of the fact that Neandertals   survived a quarter of a million years.  However, a species only need forage well enough to survive, even though the methods may not be that efficient.

f.        Philip Chase suggests that it is unfair to dismiss Neandertals for          failing to possess skills that modern humans would not develop for twenty thousand years (based on the lack of reindeer-specialized sites in the Middle Paleolithic).  Also other Neandertal sites have been found in this time frame that is dominated by other prey species.  But as critics say (Binford) the fact that a site shows a single species concentration doesn’t mean the animals were hunted (e.g. mass death due to natural causes such as flooding or falling off cliffs).

g.       In the mass of raw data gathered at Combe Grenal in France, however, over a period of  75,00 years of occupation apparently by Neandertals there were only 300 medium to large animals found (about one every 250 years!). 


4.      Neandertals may not have lived in family groups.  The males may have tended to live apart from the females and young.  This astounding contention is based upon distinct activity areas in the cave, Combe Grenal, over a period of 75,000 years.  In the central middle area one finds concentrations of material which seems to be more typical of females (certain tools, food items, etc.) whereas scattered about the periphery are small areas with remains that might be more typical of males.  At least it would appear that the cave area was shared by one group of highly mobile people moving over a wide area with another group that tended to sit on the resources available in the immediate area, eating plants and scavenged animal parts.  According to Binford the two groups look like men and women.

a.       This is in sharp contrast to Homo sapiens sites and known behavior in which the males bring back food to support the females and young.  Circumstantial support is found in the higher incidence of Neandertal juveniles in these sites compared to sites of Cro-Magnon (modern humans).

b.       Shreeve said that this doesn’t necessarily mean that the females and young were not being provisioned or defended by the males, but based upon the small sizes of the sites, the lack of organization, the lower population densities, the extreme muscularity of the women as well as the men, the lack of long-distance movement and ambiguous evidence for food sharing, it may well be that the Neandertals did not live in familiar, male protected arrangements.

c.       This counterintuitive idea which goes against the grain of what we know about our own societies seems to elicit a gut reaction against it.  Critics of the idea abound, but no really good counter explanation seems to have been put forward.


5.   Evidence suggests that Neandertals and modern humans coexisted in the same small area of Israel for tens of thousands of years without interbreeding! 


Source: Shreeve, James.1995. The Neandertal Enigma. Avon Books, New York.  369 pp.























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