Just how human were Neandertals?

Razib has found a New Scientist article that brings up the question of how human were Neandertals? And by that we are asking what level of complexity can we attribute to Neandertals based off what we have found in the archaeological record?

For a long time, Neanderthals were considered dumb old cave peoples, and that’s why I use the noun Neanderthal in this sentence. But new findings have been coming in waves that challenge their stereotypes as thick skulled bruts. For example, Terry Hopkinson of the University of Leicester, UK, tells New Scientist that,

“[Neandertals] incorporated different forms of tool construction into a single technique, and learned to cope with the ecological challenges posed by habitats in eastern Europe.

“There has been a consensus that the modern human mind turned on like a light switch about 50,000 years ago, only in Africa,” says Hopkinson. But the putatively modern traits accompanying the change, such as abstract art, the use of grindstones and elongated stone blades, and big game hunting began to accumulate in Africa from 300,000 years ago, he says. “It was the same in Europe with Neanderthals, there was a gradual accumulation of technology.” If Homo sapiens developed human traits gradually, then why not Neanderthals?”

The article goes on to provide an example of Neandertal’s cultural complexity when they developed a new form of stone tool by fusing façonnage and the débitage techniques.

I know Kelly, one of our old Anthropology.net bloggers had some experience studying Neandertal technology, known as Mousterian and Châtelperronian cultures, the latter is hypothesized to be synthesized from the incoming modern humane Aurignacian tradition. From my zooarchaeology background, there are other examples that document Neandertals are complex beings. The one example that comes to my mind is a 1998 finding of a possible bone flute found in a Neandertal site, the Divje babe I cave in the Idrijca river valley at Šebrelje.

Possible Bone Flute made and used by Neandertals

Another hotly debated piece of Neandertal humanity, is the burial at Shanidar Cave, where archaeologists found pollen from flowers on and around the Neandertal individual. They interpreted it as a form or mourning, or paying respects, like we do too, but others contest that it’s just flowers or pollen that blew over the bodies.

We’ll probably never know what really happened in Shanidar, but I think we can all agree that Neandertals were not simple club doting ogres. On the contrary, they made complex stone tools and survived in harsh environments, subsiding on large game and sparse vegetation. But just how human were they, that may never be really answered.

One thought on “Just how human were Neandertals?

  1. Frankly, I don’t know why, after all this time, people are still debating how “human” Neandertals were, or, for that matter, that they actually buried their beloved departed. An increasing body of evidence suggests that whatever they looked like, they seem to have acted like human beings. This evidence comes from a variety of archaeological and anatomical studies. While, absent a time machine, we will probably never know how they actually lived, or what their culture was like(any more than we will probably never know how contemporary “moderns” lived, or what their culture was like, I think we can be pretty sure that Neandertals were certain “human” in all the respects that count.
    Anne G

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