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Since 2012, Jeremy Duveau of France’s National Museum of Natural History and his colleagues have been excavating the Le Rozel site in Normandy. They have diligently unearthed a total of 257 Neanderthal footprints, along with eight handprints, from a layer of fine, dark sand deposited approximately 80,000 years ago. They published their work in PNAS. This is painstaking work. It needs to be commended as it makes the site the largest collection of prehistoric footprints in Europe to date.

These prints (except the one identified as an animal track) were made by Neanderthals who lived in western France 80,000 years ago. Image courtesy of Dominique Cliquet
The Le Rozel prints (except the one identified as an animal track) were made by Neanderthals who lived in western France 80,000 years ago.
 Image courtesy of Dominique Cliquet

Prior to this, we knew that Neanderthals were symbolical beings who decorated and produced music, art and jewelry. From Shanidar, we now understand they mourned and buried their dead. Furthermore, they probably took care of their ill and elderly. Lastly, what they consumed, what tools they used and how they made their tools is not entirely foreign knowledge to us. They were complex humans.

What has been largely unknown is the size and organization of their groups. We have used conjecture from hunter gatherer groups, that their social groups were similar in structure. This find, gives us the best possible snapshot to Neanderthal social structure aside from a census.

Just how Duveau figured out these prints are Neanderthals was done thru comparing the size and shape of foot prints of Homo sapiens and other prehistoric hominins to the Le Rozel cohort. The Le Rozel prints are found to have wider, more robust feet with shallow arches. Building off that, Duveau used the length and width of the footprints to estimate that individual’s height and build thru it’s ratio of the second metatarsal to the femur. Duveau and group summarized these ratios are most consistent with Neanderthals.

As I mentioned, it has been challenging to determine a living Neanderthal group size. We guessed from sites like El Sidron and Sima de los Huesos that Neandertals were predominately split between adults and adolescents and kids. But the problem of these sites is that they are burial sites. They are not representative of living beings but rather a burial event.

Only nine other Neanderthal footprints have been found amongst four sites in Europe and Asia, not enough to project group size and structure. Having hundreds of footprints discovered in Le Rozel gives us a much higher resolution of living Neanderthal group structure.

The minimum number of individuals based on the different prints at Le Rozel is believed to be between 10 and 13 Neanderthals. Curiously, the group seems to have been mostly children and teenagers, who outnumbered the adults by at least four to one with the youngest probably being around two years old. This gives us a good idea who deep Neanderthals rolled. Again, this is strong work from Duveau and colleagues.