Neanderthals: skilled or unskilled?

Recently, you may have seen images of a rather odd-looking bone carving, made 50,000 years ago by Neanderthals. One of the curious things about Neanderthals is that they have been portrayed as brutes, a sort of dead-end in the line of human evolution, probably wiped out by our ancestors. However, this is somewhat unfair for several reasons, one of which is this bone carving. It involved technology because apparently the bone was scraped and then seemingly boiling or some equivalent heat processing took place. Then two sets of three parallel lines, the sets normal to each other, were carved on it. What does this tell us? First, it appears they had abstract art, but a more interesting question is, did it mean anything more? We shall probably never know.

One thing that has led to the “brute” concept is they did not leave many artifacts, and those they did were stone tools that compared with our “later ancestors” appeared rather crude. But is that assessment fair? The refinement of a stone tool probably depends on the type of stone available. The Neanderthals lived more or less during an ice age, and while everything was not covered with glaciers, the glaciers would have inhibited trade. People had to use what was available. How many of you live in a place where high quality flint for knapping is available? Where I live, the most common rocks available are greywacke, basalt, and maybe some diorite, granodiorite or gabbro. You try making fine stone tools with these raw materials.

Another point, of course, is that while they lived in the “stone age”, most of their tools would actually be made of wood, with limited use of bone, antler and ivory. Stone tools were made because stone was the toughest material they could find, and they hoped to get a sharp edge which would make a useful cutting edge. Most of the wooden items will have long rotted, which is unfortunate, but some isolated items remain, including roughly 40 pieces of modified boxwood, which are interpreted as being used as digging sticks and were preserved in mudstone in Central Italy. These were 170,000 years old. Even older were nine well-preserved wooden spears is a coal mine at Schöningen, from 300,000 years ago. Making these would involve selecting and cutting a useful piece of spruce, shaping a handle, removing the bark (assumed to be done through fire) smoothing the handle with an abrasive stone, and sharpening the point, again with an abrasive stone.

Even more technically advanced, apparently stone objects were attached to wooden handles with a binding agent. The wooden parts have long rotted, but the production can be inferred from the traces of hafting wear and of adhesive material on the stones. Thus Neanderthals made stone-tipped wooden spears, hafted cutting and scraping tools, and they employed a variety of adhesives. Thus they made two different classes of artifacts each comprising at least three components. They were making objects more complex than some recent hunter-gatherers. There is a further point. The items require a number of steps to make them, and they require quite different skills. The better tools would be made quicker if there were different people making the various components, but that would require organization, and ensuring each knew what then others were doing. That involves language. We have also found a pit that contains many bones and tools for cutting meat from them, presumably a butchery where the results of a successful hunt were processed. That involves sharing the work, and presumably the yield. 

We have found graves. They must have endured pain because they invariably have the signs of at least one fracture that healed. To survive such injuries they must have had others care for them. Also found have been sharpened pieces of manganese dioxide, which is soft but very black. Presumably these were crayons, which implies decorating something, the somethings long rotted away. There are Neanderthal cave paintings in SpainFinally, there was jewellery, which largely involved shells and animals’ teeth with holes cut into them. Some shells were pigmented, which means decoration. Which raises the question, could you cut a hole in a tooth with the only available tools being what you made from stone, bone, or whatever is locally available naturally? Finally, there are the ”what were they” artifacts. One is the so-called Neanderthal flute – a 43,000 – 60,000- year-old bear femur with four holes drilled in it. The spacings does not match any carnivore’s tooth spacing, but they do match that of a musical scale, which, as an aside, indicate the use of a minor scale. There is also one carving of a pregnant woman attributed to them.  These guys were cleverer than we give them credit for.

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