February 16, 2019 | Jerry Bergman

Neanderthals Are Evolving

 

by Dr Jerry Bergman

Actually they are not evolving, but our picture of them is. Drastically. Science has moved the picture of Neanderthals from our primitive brutish less evolved evolutionary ancestors to the typical family next door. The latest study concluded they were “people who liked nothing better than spending time indoors around the fire . . .  and having friends over for dinner.”[1] A report in Science wrote “Once seen as brute cavemen, Neandertals have gained stature as examples of sophisticated technology and behavior have turned up in their former territory across Europe.”[2]

A home is important because, as Matt Pope, an archaeologist at University College London, argues, home  “marked a critical threshold in the long march towards civilization. . . . a conceptual leap that shaped the way our ancestors thought and interacted.”[3] For most of prehistory, the assumed time before we have written records, no evidence exists of human presence in caves or even rock shelters.

This conclusion is based on the finding that all the claims of fragments found of pre-modern human ancestors, such as the most famous, Lucy, were found, not in caves or even near caves, or rock shelters, but on the plains. Lucy was found on the hilly plains of Hadar in the Afar region of Ethiopia, a country in Africa.[4] This was not the case of Neanderthal bones, many, or even most, of which were found in caves. One writer, Spinny, adds that “evidence is growing that . . .  Neanderthals may have been the original homebodies. A picture is emerging of their domestic life that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. Far from being brutish, they may have enjoyed nothing more than spending time indoors around a cozy fire.”[5]

A study published in the leading American science magazine concluded after a study of cave paintings that

Neanderthals are our closest extinct relatives, but for a long time, they had a reputation for being pretty backward. Early modern humans, for example, made cave paintings. But even though Neanderthals used pigments and decorated themselves with eagle claws and shells, there was no clear proof that they painted [pictures in]caves.[6]

The newest evidence points to the conclusion that many cave paintings were done by Neanderthals. In one recent example, we now have evidence that Neanderthals decorated their abode with artwork.[7] This is important because “few researchers imagined them engaging in one of the most haunting practices in human prehistory: creating paintings—vehicles for symbolic expression—in the darkness of caves.”[8]

Max Planck Institute Professor for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, Jean-Jacques Hublin added about the new research: “People saw cave painting as a major gap between Neandertals and modern humans. This discovery [of Neanderthal cave painting] reduces the distance.”[9] The unanimity of this conclusion was stressed as follows: “For once, the fractious scientists who study the Neandertals agree about something: that a study has dropped a bombshell on their field, by presenting the most persuasive case yet that our vanished cousins had the cognitive capacity to create art.”[10]  The conclusion of the art experts was, “Neandertal artistic creativity [was] equivalent to the art and symbolism practiced by modern humans.”[11]

Consequently, from this evidence, University of Leiden Archaeology Professor Marie Soressi, admitted, “The discovery adds to a growing body of evidence upending the idea that Neanderthals were less evolved than early modern humans. . . . These cave paintings are the very last piece of evidence we were lacking.”[12] Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology geochronologist Dirk Hoffmann admits the major

reason we didn’t know Neanderthals were cave painters until now is because it’s hard to figure out when cave art was created. The most common dating method can only be used on organic material, like bones, so it usually doesn’t work for cave paintings. Another [dating] technique uses the rate of uranium’s radioactive decay as a clock. But it required lots of material to come up with a date, and cave paintings are too rare to risk damaging. Rock art “is unique, it’s precious — there’s a lot of pressure on you not to make a mistake.” [13]

Hoffmann believes he has been able to figure out how to solve these problems, and as a result concluded the cave paintings date at the exact time the Neanderthals were believed to have lived.

One reason they lived in cave homes could include the fact that necessity “may well have spawned this particular invention because the Europe that Neanderthals inhabited . . . was far colder and more arid than it is today – and with temperatures falling to -20˚C at times, and not rising above 12˚C even in summer.”[14] This cold would be a major survival problem.

We also know they learned to work with animal hides, “turning them into leather and stitching them together with long strips of hide, so they could have made simple tents. By lighting a fire inside a tent, they could have raised the temperature from -20˚C to 20˚C and, through such engineering of their environment, endured a cold winter night.”[15] As a result of this technology, Professor Matt Pope concluded, “For hundreds of miles around, there isn’t going to be any bubble of warm, survivable air other than the one the Neanderthals have managed to capture and seal.”[16]

Living in a fridge cold environment was one issue the Neanderthals faced, but not the only one. If family groups hunted and shared meat and lived at their butchery sites, the smell could have attracted scavengers such as wolves and lions. Thus, a “cave or rock shelter could have contained the smell while allowing its occupants to control access and stay safe.”[17] Evidence of this was the large number of fire pits “found at many Neanderthal living sites, some containing burnt bones. Armed with light and a means of warding off dangerous animals, Neanderthals could bring sleeping and food-sharing activities together in a single space – home.”[18] For example, at a site in southern Jordan, Neanderthals

piled up stones and wood to create windbreaks inside the shelter. Later, they began building windbreaks in the open, using wood and even mammoth bones. At La Folie, a 60,000-year-old site near Poitiers in France, post holes preserved in sediment point to some kind of circular wooden structure, perhaps covered with skins or brush [that was built to protect Neanderthal families].[19]

Professor Matt Pope and other Neanderthal researchers concluded Neanderthals possessed the technical skills to construct warm dwellings and had even “mastered the art of combining different materials, binding stone points to wooden hafts with animal sinew or plant fiber to make spears, for example, and sealing the joints with resin or birch bark pitch.”[20] They also unearthed “shells from a fourth Spanish cave, pigment-stained and pierced as if for use as body ornaments.”[21] Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology, Professor María Gema Chacón and her colleagues, have uncovered one 300-square-meter cave floor that Neanderthals lived in. One level, contained over 40 hearths, at which  “You can still smell the roasted deer.”[22]

Neanderthals were also fairly sophisticated cooks who consumed a wide variety of food.[23] Findings at digs and dental calculus indicate they boiled bones to extract nutrients, used wild herbs such as yarrow to flavor their meat with, and even at times, adopted a vegetarian diet. Neanderthals show evidence of medicinal plants entrapped in dental calculus. Specifically the scientists used

morphological analysis of plant microfossils, to identify material entrapped in dental calculus from five Neanderthal individuals from the north Spanish site of El Sidrón. Our results provide the first molecular evidence for inhalation of wood-fire smoke and bitumen or oil shale and ingestion of a range of cooked plant foods.[24]

Life around camp fires is common today, and affected social interactions which likely included gossip, complaints, practical discussions of life problems, a variety of concerns, telling of stories, and discussions of daily activities and about the things that matter to humans, especially the events that emotionally bind people. A fire social gathering around food also “provides opportunities for non-verbal communication in the form of eye contact and who sits where, and for other social bonding activities such as singing and dancing.[25] From this and other research, it sounds like the Neanderthals were very much like us, which we would expect if they were the children of Adam and Eve, which both they and we are. I can only say welcome to the family.


[1] Laura Spinney.2019. Cozy up with the Neanderthals, the first humans to make a house a home. New Scientist. 241(3216): 28-31. February 9-15. p. 28.

[2]  Tim Appenzeller. 2018. Europe’s Firsts Artists  Were Neanderthals. Science. 359(6378): 852.

[3] Quoted in Spinney. 2019. p. 28.

[4] W.L. Jungers, 1988. “Lucy’s length: Stature reconstruction in Australopithecus afarensis (A.L.288-1) with implications for other small-bodied hominids.”  American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 76 (2): 227–231. 

[5] Spinney. 2019. p. 28.

[6] Rachel Becker. 2018. Ancient cave paintings turn out to be by Neanderthals, not modern humans.

https://www.theverge.com/2018/2/22/17041426/neanderthals-cave-painting-spain-uranium-dating

[7] Appenzeller, 2018. p. 852.

[8] Appenzeller, 2018. p. 852.

[9] Appenzeller, 2018. p. 852.

[10] Appenzeller, 2018. p. 852.

[11] Appenzeller, 2018. p. 853.

[12] Becker. 2018. Emphasis added.

[13] Becker. 2018.

[14] Spinney.2019. p. 28.

[15] Spinney.2019. p. 30

[16] Quoted in Spinney.2019. p. 30

[17] Spinney.2019. p. 28.

[18] Spinney.2019. p. 30

[19] Spinney.2019. p. 30

[20] Spinney.2019. p. 30

[21] Appenzeller, 2018. p. 852.

[22] Spinney.2019. p. 30

[23] Amanda G. Henry. 2011. Microfossils in calculus demonstrate consumption of plants and cooked foods in Neanderthal diets (Shanidar III, Iraq; Spy I and II, Belgium). PNAS. 108(2): 486-491. January.

[24] Karen Hardy et al., 2012. Neanderthal medics? Evidence for food, cooking, and medicinal plants entrapped in dental calculus. Natur wissenschaften. 99(8); 671-626. August.

 


Dr. Jerry Bergman has taught biology, genetics, chemistry, biochemistry, anthropology, geology, and microbiology at several colleges and universities including for over 40 years at Bowling Green State University, Medical College of Ohio where he was a research associate in experimental pathology, and The University of Toledo. He is a graduate of the Medical College of Ohio, Wayne State University in Detroit, the University of Toledo, and Bowling Green State University. He has over 1,300 publications in 12 languages and 40 books and monographs. His books and textbooks that include chapters that he authored, are in over 1,500 college libraries in 27 countries. So far over 80,000 copies of the 40 books and monographs that he has authored or co-authored are in print. For more of his articles on CEH, see his Author Profile.

[25] Spinney.2019. P. 31

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