Neanderthal Culture

We like to think that culture separates humans from animals, but what is the sign of culture? The reason this is of interest is that recently cave art has been discovered in some Spanish caves that is at least 60,000 years old, which means that it was drawn by Neanderthals as Homo sapiens did not arrive in Europe for another 20,000 years. It is not as distinctive as some of the cave art found in French caves, but that may not be surprising, since it has had to last an additional 30,000 years or so, and some has been dated to over 100,000 years.

Neanderthals are often considered as unsophisticated brutes, incapable of art, and far less technically capable than us. That has often been argued because Homo sapiens made quite sharp arrowheads and Neanderthals did not. It is true that Homo sapiens also made sharper spear tips, but this may be because the two races/species hunted differently. The Neanderthals were ambush hunters in the ice age forests whereas Homo sapiens arrived as grass-lands were appearing, and had to hunt in the open. This may be why the Neanderthals gave way: they simply could not get enough food. That we shall never know. There is also an argument that we have a few per cent of Neanderthal genes, which means the two interbred, which to me suggests they were simply different races and not different species.

As for being clumsy brutes, I saw in a museum near the palace at Versailles some artifacts, and yes, by and large the weapons used by the Neanderthals for hunting were far more clumsy looking, and would need a lot more power to use. But they were far more powerful. They had strength, but not stamina. They had not mastered flint knapping, and I am not sure whether they even knew about flint. We have to be careful in making such statements because although we have a number of artefacts, they tend to have been collected from a few very selected places, and during an ice age, the supply or resources may have been considerably less. However, at this museum there was also a bone flute that was attributed to them. If so, that means they made music. The caves also contained shells with holes pierced in them, strongly suggestive that the shells were made into necklaces.

Now the paintings. The way we know how old they are is interesting. The cave artists used inorganic pigments, by and large, although the black may have been carbon. However, the dating was done by a particularly crafty means. The paintings have a thin layer of calcite over them, deposited by groundwater seeping down over them. The water contains tiny levels of uranium, and when lodged in the calcite, it decays to thorium. (Thorium oxide is effectively insoluble in water, so it would not have been in the original water.) The uranium/thorium ratio allows us to date the calcite, and interestingly, although this layer is relatively thin, they have been able to shave it and find that the deeper calcite is indeed older.

So they drew, they made music, they adorned themselves. Not that much different from us.

3 thoughts on “Neanderthal Culture

  1. Thanks for the info about the paintings, Ian, I didn’t know!
    In the last two years, a few facts seem to have become clear.
    1) My old theory (Google!) “math extinguished Neanderthals” (MEN), is so right that it was copied by some academics, and just (partly) published in Nature… (2018)
    2) Interbreeding between Homo Neanderthals Homo Sapiens Sapiens has been going on for hundreds of thousands of years (2018)
    3) Neanderthals probably domesticated European wolves (google Patrice Ayme dog Neanderthals)
    4) Neanderthals were first to use fossil fuels, namely lignite, in France. Many other tech advances are probably due to Neanderthals, including flutes. Neanderthals and Denisovans held Eurasia, and HSS was incapable of significant penetration there. Australasia was conquered by Denisovans (?), not HSS…
    5) Neanderthals’ traits became outbred as explained in 1), also in part due to technological advances they themselves created
    6) HSS is tellingly closer to Homo Antecessor than to Neanderthalis. So Neanderthalis, with its much bigger brain looks more evolved, and HSS the degenerated, by-to-carp, DOMESTICATED version of Neanderthalis, devolving under easier (tech) conditions….
    7) If my math theory of extinction is right, it applies to the disappearance of dinosaurs, and other extinction events, as I explained in MEN…

    • Thanks for the comments, Patrice. Since HN and HSS interbred and left their genetic traces, my view is they are not really separate species, but HN almost certainly was more powerful and less agile, and strong climate change tends to make ambush hunting less productive because every now and again, the environment is not friendly. The comment by that academic about big eyes leaves me speechless!

      • That HSS is a less evolved form than HN is increasingly surfacing: smaller brain in HSS with traits like Homo Antecessor; HN had more evolved facial traits (says great specialist Hublin), and general domesticated features for HSS.

        That they were the same species, as you said, is not disputable anymore: they interbred for hundreds of thousands of years. They are rather like two poles of the same species: HN the Arctic form (like Ursus Maritimus, the polar bear), and HSS the more gracile form (like Ursus Arctos, the Brown Bear, the Grizzly). The two bears interbred, but the two humans were obviously even closer.
        The will to represent Neanderthals as atrociously primitive is a will to racism… in my eyes.

        The gist of my argument in MEN is that Neanderthals traits were bigger, more energyvore (including bigger brains, which suck up energy), thus disadvantaged in reproduction production. Especially in light of tech advances (including advanced clothing and dogs). Still Neanderthals were at the forefront of humanity for hundreds of thousands of years, and were caught up by the “petites gens” (figuratively, and literally)…

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