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?”
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.
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.