Neanderthals Dried Fresh Meat, Wore Tailored Clothing – Energy Study

Energy Use by Eem Neanderthals

A paper in the Journal of Archaeological Science by Bent Sørensen of the University of Roskilde in Denmark, discusses how European Neanderthals living in the Eemian interglacial, dated to around 125,000 years bp  might have Neanderthaler fitted clothesconserved much needed energy by drying and storing meat,  wearing fitted clothing, and sleeping beneath blankets of mammoth skin, behaviours that would have greatly increased their chances of surviving decreasing temperatures with the onset of ice ages.

Because Neanderthals were far more robust than ourselves and experienced lives of great physical duress, energy acquisition and conservation would have been of prime importance to them, especially when we consider that hunting trips in pursuit of large herbivores would have involved the physical challenges of attacking the prey at close quarters,  transportation of large quantities of meat back to camp  – drying large quantities of freshly killed lean meat greatly reduces the weight burden, and moreover prevents it from quickly rotting. Fatty meat on the other hand does not preserve well, and rots more quickly than lean meat.

The paper also presents a good case for the idea that contrary to many depictions of barefooted archaic humans draped in ill-fitting animal skins, (which would have afforded little in the way of protection from the elements) it seems more likely from the scarce archaeological evidence, that they wore clothes that fit and sturdy foot-wear to boot. Not only would this have been the case during colder glacial eras, but also during warmer spells, when sleeping at night would have required the use of covers or blankets, when night-time temperatures would have dropped.


An analysis of energy use by Neanderthals in Northern Europe during the mild Eem interglacial period is carried out with consideration of the metabolic energy production required for compensating energy losses during sleep, at daily settlement activities and during hunting expeditions, including transport of food from slain animals back to the settlement. Additional energy sources for heat, security and cooking are derived from fireplaces in the open or within shelters such as caves or huts. The analysis leads to insights not available from archaeological findings that are mostly limited to durable items such as those made of stone:

Even during the benign Eem period, Neanderthals faced a considerable heat loss problem. Wearing tailored clothes or some similar measure was necessary for survival. An animal skin across the shoulder would not have sufficed to survive even average cold winter temperatures and body cooling by convection caused by wind. Clothes and particularly footwear had to be sewn together tightly in order to prevent intrusion of water or snow.

The analysis of hunting activity evolvement in real time further shows that during summer warmth, transport of meat back to the base settlement would not be possible without some technique to avoid that the meat rots. The only likely technique is meat drying at the killing site, which indicates further skills in Neanderthal societies that have not been identified by other routes of investigation.

Although only the abstract is available at the Journal of Archaeological Science, the paper is reproduced (PDF) in its entirety at Professor Sørensen’s website, affording us the opportunity of gleaning further insights into the lives of Neanderthals living in north-western Europe 125,000 years ago, a time when the climate is estimated to have been fairly similar to the current conditions, and one that was capable of supporting plenty of food on the hoof, and extensive woodlands which in turn allowed Neanderthals to exploit timber, not only as fuel for the fire, but quite possibly for the occasional hut as well – suggestions that they built wind-breaks for example, is further testament to their technological prowess.

Additionally, consideration is given as to how they would have coped with the cold during long glaciations, when the fauna they hunted would have changed, focussing more on mammoth, which appear to have been virtually absent from this part of Europe during warm intervals. Here’s an excerpt from the paper addressing this very topic:

The minimum endurable temperature calculations presented in Table 1 show, that sleeping naked in a cave or hut (sheltered from wind) requires temperatures above 27 or 28 °C (male and female), and 5 °C more if sleeping outside, even in a place with low wind (1.5 m s-1). Wearing one layer of clothes, the minimum endurable temperatures change to 13 and 15 °C inside, 16 and 20 °C outside, and with a mammoth-equivalent skin cover to –15 and –10 °C inside and -9 and –4 °C outside in a 5 m s-1 wind. Clothes plus mammoth-equivalent skin cover lowers the endurable temperatures by another 13-14 °C.

The implication is that bed cover equivalent to a large mammoth skin would have been indispensable at nearly all times during the year, and that hunters on a multi-day winter hunting expedition would have had to bring some form of cover to use when sleeping along on the trip. Exposed body areas such as the face would need heat transfer from adjacent areas. Extremities are more cold-sensitive than the whole-body average, and only small exposed areas would receive enough heat transfer from covered parts of the body. Thus, the conclusion drawn is that in average winter conditions, the clothes worn must have been capable of preventing air flow from penetrating to more than small body surface areas, and that footwear in particular must have been tailored to wrap the feet entirely during the long walks associated with day-long hunting trips.

Lithic remains from the Eem include awl-like points suited for making holes in skin material (found e.g. at the Stuttgart-Untertürkheim site; Wenzel, 2007), as well as knife-like blades suited for cutting strips of animal skin, that could be inserted and weaved through the holes, in order to convert plain furs into fitting clothes.

The last paragraph details the use of stone blades and awls, and despite a recent story which asserted that the earliest known stone blades date back half a million years, it transpires that both stone blades and awls are associated with Oldowan and Acheulean lithic industries, which also included scrapers, all of which could have been used in the treatment or modification of animal hides.

Although the necessary tools may have been available, this doesn’t necessarily mean that archaic species such as H. erectus definitely made their own clothes and shoes, but if they had already lost their body hair, sleeping under covers at night would have been just as necessary for them as their Neanderthal descendants. It may well have been that the first clothes were invented after archaic humans had realised that the material used for their nocturnal coverings could be further modified and stitched together to make the first clothes – it would have been apparent from very early on that simply draping themselves with animal hides would have been more a hindrance than an aid to survival. Whether aesthetic factors were also involved, isn’t known…….

The question of the earliest footwear has been addressed amongst others by Erik Trinkaus, who suggested that the appearance of more gracile toe-bones found with dated human fossil remains, seen at around 30,000 years bp, possibly earlier, indicated that people first began wearing shoes or boots at that time. However, there doesn’t appear to have been any reduction in the size of Neanderthal phalanges that would support this theory,which holds that shoe wearers use their big toe to gain traction, passing less energy through the four smaller toes, leading to a decrease in their size.

This story also receives coverage over at Discovery, and the article there includes further musings and a few quotes from Bent Sørensen:

According to the study, Neanderthals sported “one or two layers of skins/furs and wrapped skins/furs for shoes, held together by leather strings.”

Author Bent Sorensen told Discovery News that chewing clothing materials wasn’t beneath these members of the Homo genus.  “Neanderthal tooth marks indicate chewing hides for softening, which is essential for clothes making,” said Sorensen, a researcher in the Department of Environmental, Social and Spatial Change at Roskilde University.

Using the body surface area of Neanderthals, based on their skeletal remains, along with known climate condition averages for Northern Europe at the time, he calculated the metabolic body energy required to compensate for energy losses during sleep, daily settlement activities and hunting expeditions.  Even with warm fires lit in caves and at other home sites, Sorensen believes Neanderthals must have slept underneath mammoth skins and other coverings.  Tools found for making clothes, such as hide scrapers and points for poking holes in animal skins, support his contention that Neanderthals dressed in well-fitted layers.

And on the subject of how and why Neanderthals might have dried fresh meat:

Taking into consideration basic movements needed for hunting and survival, such as walking and wood cutting, Sorensen believes Neanderthal groups would have needed about 1,792 pounds of meat per month, requiring one mammoth — or other big game kill — every seven weeks.  Animal bones and stone tools at Neanderthal sites indicate they hunted away from home. In order to transport meat, Sorensen thinks they must have dried it somehow. But, he said, “I do not know of any evidence for (them) using salt.”

“As for preparation, boiling is much more efficient and nutrient-conserving than frying, and evidence from more recent Stone Age settlements confirm that meat was boiled in ceramic pots or skin bags,” he said. “However, it is still likely that frying over the camp fire was the usual method in Neanderthal communities, since no containers for boiling have been found.”  “Carrying dried meat from a mammoth home could now be done by seven to eight round trips (over) 14 to 16 days,” he added.

This last observation depicts Neanderthals as spending much of their precious time lugging heavy loads across the landscape, chopping and gathering timber when climate permitted, as well as much time and effort preparing animal hides by chewing, rather than living an idyllic lifestyle of nomadic people hunting and gathering plentiful supplies of food, leaving plenty of time on their hands for recreational activities.

Moreover, had Neanderthals used salt for drying the meat, they would not only have needed access to rock salt deposits, but would have needed to transport it in bulk to kill sites, which would further have expended their energy, so I’m not sure if salt was the solution. Although there are rock salt deposits in Germany, Austria and Poland, I’m not aware of any archaeology which demonstrates Palaeolithic exploitation of this resource, and in any case, only groups living nearby would likely have been able to make use of whatever they found to hand. It’s generally thought that Neanderthals groups lived in relative isolation to one another, meaning that salt was unlikely to have formed part of a trade network, not least because regular transportation in quantity would have required the use of animals to carry it.

Drying large quantities of meat with smoke would have required intense activity at the kill site, the erection of a wooden structure and construction and maintenance of a fire would have required a hypothetical hunting party of 5 or 6 people to have set up a secondary kill-camp, thus expending more energy, which in turn would have been supplied in part from fatty meat from the kill which would presumably have been eaten instead of the lean cuts set aside for drying. Smoke from a small camp fire wouldn’t have been sufficient for drying out the meat from a mammoth for example.

The least labour intensive methods of drying meat would have been sun and wind, involving the building of wooden frames or structures on which to place it, but of course local weather conditions would have dictated how often and for how long this would have been a viable option.

The suggestion that Neanderthals made their own fitted clothes and kept food in storage rather than eating as much as they could on the spot, before heading off in search of the next meal, certainly seems to indicate complexity of thought that allowed for long-term planning and innovatory behaviours  – and as we have seen from previous reports, they made a type of adhesive from heat-treated birch resin around 80,000 years ago, with which they may have hafted their hunting spears.

Over recent years the perception of Neanderthals has significantly altered, with strong indications that they may have been just as adept at survival as their anatomically modern counterparts, with one or two key differences that may have caused their downfall.

As mentioned in the paper, Neanderthals weren’t capable of throwing spears, which meant that big game had to be tackled close up, increasing  the risks of injury and death over someone launching a spear from a relatively safe distance, but the energy expenditure would also have been considerably greater. This might not have been to detrimental in the absence of competition, but once that competition arrived in the guise of anatomically modern humans (AMH), it’s likely that the balance tipped in favour of the moderns.

Not only would AMH have had to spend less energy hunting, but it would also have been relatively easy for AMH to rob Neanderthals of their own food. In the paper, Sørensen proposes a model for Neanderthal groups and their seasonal hunting and gathering activities. The basic group might have comprised 25 people, of which about 15 would have been children, leaving about 5 or 6 individuals available for hunting trips, who exploited territories of between 10 and 50 square kilometers. Seasonal base camps would have been established, with fresh or dried meat being transported from kill sites, meaning that rather than being nomadic, the Neanderthals would have relied heavily upon the same resources being in place at the same stages of each year, every year. Climate change might have been quick, but presumably slow enough for Neanderthals to adapt and survive.

Greater problems may well have arisen with the advent of AMH at the same time as climate change as Upper Palaeolithic cooling kicked in, meaning that not only would Neanderthals have been obliged to alter their own hunting strategies, but they found themselves in competition with AMH for the prime sites. We can imagine how the somewhat rigid strategies of Neanderthals would have made them vulnerable to being out-hunted by AMH, and at risk of ambush when guarding or transporting freshly killed meat. The fact that AMH could have thrown spears not only at prey but Neanderthals too would have given them a doubly competitive edge, and although such events may have been rare at first, over the course of about 15,000 years that AMH and Neanderthals shared Eurasia, deteriorating climate and AMH populations which were increasing, could between them have been major contributory causes in the downfall of Neanderthals.

Demography and the Extinction of the European Neanderthals (PDF) is another paper by Professor Sørensen, which addresses these and other potential factors as disease, spread by AMH and transported by migratory groups of Neanderthals, and provides yet more food for thought for those attempting to explain the mysterious demise of our enigmatic cousins.


Energy Use by Eem Neanderthals by Bent Sørensen, Department of Environmental, Social and Spatial Change, Roskilde University, DK 4000 Roskilde, Denmark, Journal of Archaeological Science Article in Press, Accepted Manuscript, 2009.

Demography and the Extinction of the European Neanderthals by Bent Sørensen, Department of Environmental, Social and Spatial Change, Roskilde University, DK 4000 Roskilde, Denmark.

image from: A Brief History of World Costume

15 thoughts on “Neanderthals Dried Fresh Meat, Wore Tailored Clothing – Energy Study

  1. Very interesting, thanks. I’d agree with all said here. Soft soled shoes, like moccasins would allow the shoe grip to work anyhow, as the only indirect evidence we have of AMHs using shoes is of them using hard-soled shoes, like sandals or true shoes/boots. I guess we’d never be able to tell if a fossil was using moccasins or some other kind of soft cold-protective shoe-wear (like some sort of impermeable leather socks).

    My only contention would be about Neanderthals having lost all their body hair (fur) like us. IMO, Neanderthals evolved from a separate branch of H. erectus (eventually known as H. antecessor/heidelbergensis) in Europe itself (or elsewhere in West Eurasia), living here for almost one million years in their different evolutive stages. They did develop other adaptations to cold weather, like their stocky bodies, so I have no particular reason not to believe they had lost all fur and had not even re-evolved it. Even if furry, they may still have needed good clothes anyhow for extra protection (much like we use hats and sky masks on top of head hair and beards).

  2. Luis – I forgot to point out in the post, that on those occasions where Neanderthals might have lost access to they prey animals, they would have been losing a great deal more than just the meat – if they had relied on large herbivores for clothing and bedding as well, the effect of losing the resource would have been greatly worse, leaving them not only hungry, but cold and exposed as well, not a good state of affairs in a cooling climate.

  3. The notion that Neanderthals couldn’t throw spears is an example of some supposed expert pronouncing some ridiculous conclusion based upon a faulty untested hypothesis that flies in the face of both common sense and physical evidence.

    The discover of the Schoninger spears refute this notion, as the only people around to have made and used these “throwing spears” at the time (well before Neanderthal), were almost certainly his ancestors and they were also physiologically very similar in shoulder anatomy as far as we know.

    A simple test showing just how absurd this notion that a robust human cannot throw a spear due to shoulder blade anatomy or motion limitation therein can be performed in five minutes. If I strap my shoulders to my body, limiting all motion to arm movement from the elbow down, I can still throw a spear with considerable force clear across a room or an opening by simply combining the lower arm’s foward (or sideways) swing with a quick high-torque twist of the body. Try it.

    If my puny body can still throw a spear with enough force to penetrate an object while my entire upper arms are strapped motionless, certainly brawny Neanderthals could have generated a lot more force of a very lethal nature. This test situation eliminates all motion generated by the upper arm and shoulder. In reality, we can assume that, whatever unproven limitions there may have been from Neanderthal’s shoulder anatomy, his upper arms and shoulder would still have been partly in motion and thus at least somewhat involved torque-wise. This would therefore have produced considerably more force than the conditions of my test allow.

    Simple tests such as this should always be conducted before silly pronouncments such as “Neanderthals couldn’t throw spears” become accepted as known facts.

    I also noticed some references to Neanderthals “frying” meat. I would suspect that the author actually meant “roasting”, as frying would require a pan of some sort to hold the oil and allow the meat to actually fry.

  4. Frying meat would indeed have been difficult – even if somehow they had fashioned a kind of fondue container, such as a suitably modified skull filled with hot fat, the results would definitely have varied.

    Good point about the Schöningen spears, they completely slipped my mind, so I’ll look into that – although the H. erectus people who made them may have been more suited to throwing a spear than. I’ve looked at a few H. erectus skeletons online to try and determine if their arms were asymmetrical like ours, but couldn’t tell from my brief search.

    I think the idea that Mousterian spear points were considered too heavy to be used as thrown projectiles over any appreciable distance, with or without accuracy, first gave rise to the idea that modern humans would have had a competitive edge in the Upper Palaeolithic – plus I suppose even a straight-armed throwing – or bowling – action might have been possible for Neanderthals. I’m not sure if they used bolas or slingshots either, but not as far as I know.

    I think too that the massive amount of broken bones Neanderthals displayed further indicated that Neanderthals engaged their prey face to face – maybe that was their preferred method of hunting, but if they could have thrown effectively from distance, it seems more likely they would have done so, if only to avoid the horrific injuries and searing pain inflicted in the course of their struggles.

    But it would seem surprising if no Neanderthal ever launched a spear in anger, either at human or beast.

  5. If we consider that so many foiled ambushes of quarry ended with a flash of fur disappearing at high speed though the underbrush, a parting shot by way of spear thrown at that disappearing quarry would have been impossible to resist, it seems to me.

    One can imagine scraps of meat drying or freeze-drying around butchering sites very early in hominid history. It wouldn’t be much of a jump for hominid minds well before Neanderthal to have noticed this and the non-perishing nature if the resultant dried meat. Experiments inducing this result on a larger scale would have seemed forthcoming sooner or later.

    I forgot to mention one solution to the question of boiling meat that may well have been used even in Neanderthal’s time or before hand. Plains Indians were said to sometimes boil stew made from their quarry in its own skin, hung from a tripod, with water inside the skin. Iv’e never tried this, but the principle is such that the lower temperature of the boiling water inside, keeps the skin from burning through. Presumably internal organs such as stomach pouches may well have been used also, and were no doubt used at times as storage vessels too. Simply hanging unskinned quarry over a fire to singe and roast crudely may have led to further modifications of this particularly cooking method, culminating in using skins as boiling vessels, especially if it was noted that unskinned and cooked game contained boiled stomach contents of an interesting flavor and texture.

    Caribou stomach contents were said to be a particular delicacy with some northern peoples.
    Pehaps skin cooking could have led to the use of hot rocks to boil food in containers separate from the fire as an elaboration. As tedius as this method seems, it was widely used by tribal people without pottery in much later times.

    1. Thanks for the info regarding Plains Indians and their stew – quite an ingenious cooking method, and something that wouldn’t be obvious from the archaeological record.

      There’s an interesting item on cooking in fire pits here:

      I don’t know how far back such fire pits might have been used, but it seems a very good alternative to cooking entire animals over an open fire.

  6. hey i m learning bout the neanderthals right now and the sound really interesting like really but i wonder what survival skills they used

  7. From my study, don’t buy into the idea that HSN shoulder morphology did not allow a throwing rotation. Cannot imagine how they could survive without at least being able to throw rocks. This is like the question over whether they had verbal language. After years of wrangling, it turns out–of course they did.

    This paper and your comments are a breath of fresh air. To live and accomplish what they did, both HSN and Homo Erectus had to be clothed, know how to make knots, baskets, cook, preserve food, etc.

    Just think about the logistics and knowledge Homo Erectus had to have to get across at least fifty miles of ocean to get to Australia. Case can be made about ability to navigate.

    The genetic studies are waaaay too early to state much of anything. Lots of assumptions in them and we all know what “assuming” does.

    Also, the way Max P. presents data is suspect. They seem to slant it towards HSN being separate.

  8. Looks like it’s going to be up to the genetic and dating lab boys to straighten us all out–are we screwed or what?

    Have been searching for the Neanderthal bone needle. Still have to wonder just how significant this would be. They had to tailor clothes to survive the cold. This stuff about wraps and ponchos is plain nonsense. If no needles, they must have use punch and laced using sinew or leather thongs. To me the real issue that no one seems to talk about is that they had to be able to envision, cut a pattern and tie knots! Of course with the exposure of the recent dating fiasco, needles previously attributed to HSS could well have been made and used by HSN. Cave art becomes a possibility as well.

    So much is overlooked in quest to keep N in their place. If N knew about sewing, then he most likely knew about making and using rope. How else do people think they got the meat from large animals back home?

    Being restricted to hunting in a forest is questionable. Not all of Europe was forest and NEWS FLASH animals migrate and leave the forest–what did they do then, starve (or eat each other)? In a forest fresh water and travel food is not always conveniently on a game trail. Lewis and Clark almost starved to death in northern Idaho as the game was on the plains.

    Most likely N also had baskets/packs to carry the stuff as well. Hunting also meant they must have known about smoking/processing meat and carrying water for the trail. Another beef (pun pardon) I have is utility of throwing stick for N. If they were all that strong, they likely didn’t need the sucker to throw fifty yards. Their heavier spears would have then been advantageous; kind of like an elephant rifle compared to a varmint gun. Overkill (another pardon the pun) but is more assured of affect.

    To me the ability to tie knots takes considerable intelligence of several facets including problem solving, counting, spatial relationships, complex speech, etc. to pass on knowledge of which knot to use and when. If Homo Erectus could build boats to get to Australia, he too needed knowledge of rope, knots, water and food storage, etc. and complex speech.

    The idea that HSN could not rotate their shoulders to throw a rock or spear is nonsense to me. It seems to me to be wishful thinking on part of replacement theory people; like the question of speech. Also, broken bones could be due to vitamin D deficiency from diet and lack of sunlight. Is also a reason that their bones were thicker.

    Don’t have all the answers, but can recognize lack of thought on the implications by academia.

  9. So Neanderthals could make clothes, needles, tie knots, had a transport system for thier meat, mined salt from thousands of miles away, had a language they could pass all this knowledge down with, remind me again what flimsy evidence this is based on. Isnt everyone getting a little carried away with the idea that they were just like us!

  10. “Neanderthals weren’t capable of throwing spears” – How? They had arms, they had hands, and larger brains than homo sapiens. I am sure they managed. More wafer-thin theories on how they “died out” – they didn’t, they gradually interbred, enough to physically change them – especially in terms of face and skull shape – making them more anatomically similar to homo sapiens, but still not TOTALLY the same (compare differences between African and European skeletons).

    This aside, I found the study on eating and clothing habits fascinating, and still a damn fine effort to debunk the common myth than Neanderthals were stupid, savage, and very primitive. They were at least as capable as homo sapiens, if not even more so due to the larger brain size.

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