Top Ten Myths about Neanderthals
Neanderthals are generally classified by palaeontologists as the species Homo neanderthalensis, but some consider them to be a subspecies of Homo sapiens (Homo sapiens neanderthalensis). The first humans with proto-Neanderthal traits are believed to have existed in Europe as early as 600,000–350,000 years ago, and they died out around 30,000 years ago.
When it comes to behaviours, Neanderthals tend to get a pretty bad rap. However, a plethora of research over the last several years has been breaking down many of the myths associated with this ancient species. Once depicted as barbaric, grunting, sub-humans, Neanderthals are now known to have had the same or similar levels of intelligence as modern humans and their own distinct culture. Here we examine ten myths about Neanderthals, which have now been proven false.
1. Neanderthal tools were simplistic compared to humans
The predominant belief in mainstream archaeology over a decade ago was that Neanderthals only utilized very simplistic tools, like sharpened stones. However, research conducted over the last 10 years has revised this perspective based on new archaeological evidence. An investigation conducted last year in France , analyzed artifacts unearthed from an archaeological site known as Abri du Maras, in the Middle Rhône Valley. The researchers found Levalloise flakes, which are associated with Neanderthal stone tool technology, traces of twisted fibre, suggesting the manufacture of cordage or string, and six lithic points that appear to be related to complex projectile technology, a development usually only associated with early modern humans. A second study suggested that Neanderthals even passed on some of their tool-making abilities to humans . Dutch scientists discovered 50,000-year-old tools made from deer ribs in south-west France, which are similar to bone lissoirs or smoothers, still used by leather workers today, and contain a polished tip which creates softer and more water resistant leather when scraped against a hide. The excavated tools are similar to others found at sites occupied by early modern humans around 10,000 years later. Modern humans (Homo sapiens) appear to have entered Europe with only pointed bone tools but soon after their arrival started to make lissoirs, providing the first possible evidence that Neanderthals invented the specialised bone tools and passed their know-how on to Homo sapiens.
2. Neanderthals spoke through grunts and animal-like sounds
It was long believed that Neanderthals lacked the necessary cognitive capacity and vocal hardware for speech and language, rendering them incapable of little more than a series of grunts. However, recent research has revealed that Neanderthals most likely had a sophisticated form of speech and language not dissimilar to what we have today. Researchers utilised latest 3D x-ray imagining technology to examine a 60,000-year-old Neanderthal hyoid bone discovered in the Kebara Cave in Israel in 1989. The hyoid bone is situated centrally in the upper part of the neck, beneath the mandible but above the larynx and is the foundation of speech. So far, it has only been found to exist in humans and Neanderthals. The results showed that in terms of mechanical behaviour, the Neanderthal hyoid was basically indistinguishable from our own, strongly suggesting that this key part of the vocal tract was used in exactly the same way.
Depiction of the Hyoid bone in a Neanderthal. Image source .
3. Neanderthals did not bury their dead
It was not so long ago that Neanderthals were considered to be little more than primitive cavemen, and they certainly weren’t considered cultured enough to bury their dead. But that belief has been upended by the discovery of a number of Neanderthal burials. The finding of a 50,000-year-old Neanderthal skeleton in a cave in La Chappele-aux Saints, France revealed that the individual had been carefully placed in a grave and great care had been taken to protect his body from scavengers, and one of the most famous Neanderthal child burials was uncovered in 1961 at Roc de Marsal. The grave was in a remarkable state of preservation, considering its age of 70,000 years. It consisted of the body of a child, approximately 3 years of age, who had been deposited in a natural depression in the ground, and apparently placed into the form of an arc, lying on its stomach, with a hand to its head and legs bent at 90 degrees, then covered with soil. The idea that Neanderthals buried their dead fits with recent findings that they were capable of developing rich cultures.
4. Neanderthals did not make homes
There has been this idea that Neanderthals did not have an organised use of space, something that has always been attributed to humans. Last year, archaeologists in Italy found a collapsed rock shelter which has revealed that Neanderthals kept an organised and tidy home with separate spaces for preparing food, sleeping, making tools and socialising. The study shows that Neanderthals were not that different from modern humans. The top level appears to have been used for butchering animals because it contained a high concentration of animal remains. The middle level contained the most traces of human occupation and seems to have been a long-term sleeping area. Artefacts were distributed to avoid clutter around the hearth at the back of the cave. Finally, the bottom level was a place for shorter stays. Animal bones and stone tools were concentrated at the front rather than the rear of the shelter, suggesting that tool production took place there to take advantage of available sunlight.