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Neanderthal Art & Culture

Facts about H. neanderthalensis
Arts, tool culture, extinction

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Reconstruction of elderly Neanderthal man
Elderly Neanderthal male (reconstruction). Image by Neanderthal-Museum, Mettmann. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Who were the Neanderthals?

Neanderthals were a species of early humans who lived between about 400,000 and 37,000 BC, and co-existed with Homo sapiens (modern humans) in Europe for at least 17,000 years.

In the Middle East, the two species may have rubbed shoulders for up to 50,000 years.

Homo neanderthalensis settled across the northern hemisphere, from Britain to China, and developed a short and stocky physique to help stay warm.

In contrast, their ancestor Homo heidelbergensis and the later H. sapiens developed a more slender frame with longer legs, which was suited to warmer climes.

Neanderthals also had larger brains than any other hominins, and could think abstractly. Indeed, scientists believe their mental abilities were relatively close to our own.

In particular, they were the first Stone Age hominins to be associated with cave art (in the form of painted signs and stalagmites).

In addition, they produced rock art (in the form of cupules and engravings), and decorative art (in the form of necklaces and other adornments).

In addition, they created a mysterious circle of broken stalactites (think, installation) in a cave in southwestern France. For details, see: Bruniquel Cave Constructions (175,000 BC).

Thanks to a combination of palaeoproteomic and palaeogenetic analysis by scientists at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, we also know Neanderthals mastered the art of flint-knapping and made important contributions to several stone tool cultures including Châtelperronien culture.

For more about the earliest prehistoric art, which emerged during the Middle and Lower Paleolithic, see: World's Oldest art (from 540,000 BC).

Neanderthal eagle talon jewellery (reconstruction) from Hušnjakovo Hill, Croatia
Reconstruction of Neanderthal eagle talon jewellery, recovered from Krapina Cave, Hrvatsko Zagorje, Croatia. Image by Luka Mjeda, Zagreb. (CC BY 4.0)

When was the Species Discovered?

The first fossil of the species to be discovered and documented was 'Neanderthal 1', an oval shaped skull with a large brow ridge under a flat and receding forehead.

It was found in 1856, in the small Feldhofer Cave, located in the Neander Valley near the German city of Düsseldorf. (The suffix 'thal' means valley in German.)

Since then, the fossilized remains of hundreds of individual members of the species, have been excavated from Stone Age sites across Europe and the Middle East.

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Where Did Neanderthals Live?

Fossils of this species have been found scattered across Eurasia, from Britain to Mongolia.

They inhabited southern and central Europe, the Middle east and parts of Siberia and central Asia.

It's possible their distribution extended as far east as China. A skull known as 'Maba', found in Guangdong province in southern China, is alleged to belong to the species, but doubts persist.

At any rate, genetic evidence points to the existence of several distinct geographical groups, including: Western Europe (e.g. La Micoque in the Périgord), the Mediterranean coastline (e.g. Cave of Los Aviones), the Caucasus (e.g. Mezmaiskaya Cave) and the Siberian Altai Mountains (e.g. Denisova Cave).

Contact between these regions was sporadic, but still significant. For example, DNA and tools from Okladnikov and Chagyrskaya caves, in the Altai Mountains, are more similar to those at Neanderthal sites in Eastern Europe, than to those at Denisova Cave.

Population

Studies employing mtDNA analysis have produced various estimates of the Neanderthal population during the Stone Age.

A reasonable range is between 10,000 and 20,000 individuals, although there are higher and lower estimates.

The population peaked about 50,000 BC, after which it went into decline.

Scientists believe the species lived in especially small groups with perhaps 20-50 members, and suffered from low fertility and high infant mortality rates.

In addition, DNA analysis shows persistent inbreeding with consequent health problems.

Life expectancy among adult Neanderthals was also relatively low: four out of five 20-year olds were dead by the age of 40.

All this implies a population barely able to maintain itself.

Did Neanderthals Evolve into Modern Humans?

No. According to archaeology, Neanderthals are not part of the mainline evolutionary tree.

Modern Homo sapiens evolved in Africa from H. heidelbergensis (who evolved from H. ergaster), and began leaving Africa from about 110,000 BC, appearing first in the Middle East.

But it wasn't until about 70,000 BC - probably due to climate and environmental changes - that large scale migration of modern humans took place.

Archaeologists know that Cro-Magnon modern humans were in the Mandrin Cave in southern France by 54,000 BC, and they have also identified a tenfold increase in the population of moderns in Western Europe, during the period of their co-existence with indigenous Neanderthals.

[Note: Prior to the fossils unearthed at Mandrin Cave, the earliest modern humans in Europe were found at Bacho Kiro Cave in central Bulgaria.]

This, together with the problems listed above, would have placed Neanderthals at a severe disadvantage when competing for shelter and territory with the new modern migrants.

Nonetheless, for 17 years at least, Neanderthals co-existed with H. sapiens in Europe, as they did elsewhere across Eurasia. But did they interbreed?

A 2010 archaeogenetics study of the Neanderthal genome (nuclear DNA and genes) confirms that modern humans and Neanderthals did interbreed, although on a very limited scale.

Present-day Europeans and Asians share about 1-4 percent of their DNA with Neanderthals, while Africans share none.

However, the data shows that wide-scale interbreeding did not occur between the two species in Europe, where it would have been the most convenient given their close proximity.

Paleoanthropologists are now seeking answers as to why so little interbreeding occurred. One possibility is that Neanderthals were too widely dispersed and may have avoided contact, for reasons of self-preservation.

Facts About Neanderthals

Neanderthal body size and shape, compared to modern humans:

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Neanderthal diet and lifestyle

Neanderthals Culture

Neanderthals had a complex culture, involving the creation of art as well as some relatively sophisticated tools. They used medicinal plants and cared for their sick. But in many ways they remained archaic in their behaviour.

For example, there is evidence that Neanderthals often buried their dead and sometimes marked their graves with offerings. They were the first human species to perform this type of symbolic act.

Examples include: the 'cemetery' of six or seven individuals, dating to around 60,000 BC, found at La Ferrassie Cave in the French Dordogne, and the interred skeletons of two individuals recovered from the Kizil-Koba Cave in the Crimea.

At the same time, however, Neanderthals also resorted to occasional cannibalism.

At the Neanderthal site of Krapina Cave in Croatia, for instance, archaeologists discovered almost 800 Neanderthal bones with evidence of cut marks and hammerstone fragments.

What's more, while the bones with little or no bone marrow were intact, all the marrow-rich bones were missing.

Evidence of Stone Age cannibalism by Neanderthals, has also been found at Abri Moula-Guercy in the French Ardèche, at Les Pradelles in south-central France, and La Quina in the Charente.

In Spain, similar evidence has been discovered at the El Sidron Cave in the Asturias, as well as Cueva del Boquete at Zafarraya near Granada. In addition, five partially cannibalised individuals were discovered at the Grottes de Goyet in the Belgian province of Namur.

Tools

Neanderthals made reasonably advanced stone tools, classified as Mode 3 technology.

About 300,000 years ago, they developed an innovative flint-knapping technology known as the Levallois technique. This was part of the wider Mousterian culture - named after Le Moustier rock shelter in the Dordogne - which was introduced by Neanderthals in Europe, after which they also developed the Micoquien tool industry.

Some paleoanthropologists believe they also developed the Châtelperronian tool culture, during the earliest phase of the Upper Paleolithic, but the claim is controversial.

It is thought that Neanderthals imitated the flint-knapping and types of tools made by modern humans. Or else, they acquired the tools by trading with them.

In any event, while H. neanderthalensis may have been more creative and sophisticated that originally thought, Cro-Magnon moderns were quick to introduce a new range of specialist tools demonstrating their more advanced cognitive toolkit.

See also: History of Stone Tools.

Neanderthal Art

Homo neanderthalensis was the first human species to create paleolithic art in caves, including rock engravings and a variety of cave painting, notably in Spain. Also, they may have created the world's oldest known musical instrument.

In total, they were responsible for at least six categories of Stone Age art, as follows:

How sophisticated is Neanderthal art?

Compared to earlier attempts by Homo erectus and others, Neanderthal art is very sophisticated.

But when compared to the cave paintings and rock carvings produced by Cro-Magnons, during the era of Upper Paleolithic art, it appears primitive.

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Why did Neanderthals Become Extinct?

No single cause has so far been identified for the rapid disappearance of Neanderthals from the archaeological record. Thus it seems most likely that their extinction was due to a combination of factors:

Biological Issues

Behavioural Symptoms

Demographic Issues

Climate Problems

Other Hominins

References

(1) Szalay, F. S.; Delson, E. (2013). Evolutionary history of the Primates. Academic Press. p. 508. ISBN 978-1-4832-8925-0.
(2) Milks, A.; Parker, D.; Pope, M. (2019). "External ballistics of Pleistocene hand-thrown spears: experimental performance data and implications for human evolution". Scientific Reports. 9 (1): 820.
(3) Wil Roebroeks, Mark J. Sier, Trine Kellberg Nielsen, and Herman J. Mücher. "Use of red ochre by early Neandertals." PNAS. January 23, 2012. 109 (6) 1889-1894.
(3) Zilhao, J. et al; (11 January 2010). "Symbolic use of marine shells and mineral pigments by Iberian Neandertals". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 107 (3): 1023–1028.
(4) "Palaeoproteomic evidence identifies archaic hominins associated with the Châtelperronian at the Grotte du Renne." Frido Welker, Mateja Hajdinjak, Sahra Talamo, and Jean-Jacques Hublin. PNAS. September 16, 2016. 113 (40) 11162-11167.
(5) Leder, Dirk, et al; (September 2021). "A 51,000-year-old engraved bone reveals Neanderthals' capacity for symbolic behaviour". Nature Ecology & Evolution. 5 (9): 1273–1282.
(6) D.L. Hoffmann et al. 2018. U-Th dating of carbonate crusts reveals Neandertal origin of Iberian cave art. Science 359 (6378): 912-915.

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