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Neanderthal Study Guide

Important Facts about Neanderthals


Silex Mousterian Side-Scraper from Grotte du Noisetier, France

Silex Mousterian Side-Scraper from Grotte du Noisetier, France

V. Mourre

A Few Important Facts about Neanderthals

The Basics
  • Alternate Names and Spellings: Neandertal, Neanderthaloid. Some scholars use Homo sapiens neanderthalensis or Homo neanderthalensis.
  • Range: Skeletal material and lithic artifacts thought to represent the evidence of Neanderthals have been found throughout Europe and western Asia. The Neanderthals were the first human species to live outside of the temperate zone of the world, at sites such as Weasel Cave, Russia.
  • Hunting Strategies. The very oldest Neanderthals were likely scavengers, who recovered food from other hunting animals. However, by the late Middle Paleolithic, Neanderthals are thought to have become adept with using a spear in close-quarters hunting strategies.
  • Stone Tools: The group of tools associated with the Neanderthals in the Middle Paleolithic (before about 40,000 years ago) is called by archaeologists the Mousterian lithic tradition, which includes a tool making technique called Levallois; later they are associated with the Chatelperronian lithic tradition.
  • Tool Types: Types of tools associated with Middle Paleolithic Neanderthals include all-purpose scrapers and tools made from stone flakes. The shift in tools that marks the transition from Middle to Upper Paleolithic is marked by increased complexity—that is, tools were created for specific tasks rather than all-purpose—and the addition of bone and antler as raw material. Mousterian tools were used both by early modern humans, and Neanderthals.
  • Use of Fire: Neanderthals did have some control of fire.
  • Burials and Ceremony: Some evidence of intentional burial, perhaps some grave goods, but this is rare and controversial as yet. Some evidence that babies and infants were buried in shallow pits, and others in natural fissures as well as shallow excavated graves. Possible grave goods include bone fragments and stone tools, but these are again somewhat controversial.
  • Social Strategies: Neanderthals apparently lived in small nuclear families. There is clearly evidence for some amount of social networking, including interaction between family or neighboring groups.
  • Language: It is not known whether Neanderthals had a language. They had a big enough brain and they apparently had the vocal equipment, so it is quite possible.
  • Physical Traits: Neanderthals walked upright, and had hands, feet and body forms similar to early modern humans (EMH). They had a big brain, like we do. Based on the bone structure, they had powerfully built arms, legs and torso; and powerful teeth and jaws. This last characteristic combined with exhibited tooth wear suggests to archaeologists that they used their teeth as tools for holding and stripping things more than EMH.
  • Appearance: Endless discussion about how the Neanderthals looked, whether they looked more like gorillas or more like early modern humans, has occurred, mostly in the public press. Jim Foley of the Talk Origins website has a fascinating collection of images used in the past.
  • Life Expectancy: The oldest Neanderthals appear to be just over 30. In some cases, such as at Chapelle aux Saintes, it is clear that Neanderthals lived well beyond their capacity to fend for themselves, meaning that Neanderthals took care of their elderly and sick.
  • Art: Marks on animal bones are known to have been created by Neanderthals. A recent find in France appears to be a purposefully chipped face.
  • DNA: Neanderthal DNA has been recovered from individual skeletons at a few sites, including Feldhofer Cave in Germany, Mezmaiskaya Cave in Russia, and Vindija Cave, Croatia. The DNA sequences are similar, and divergent enough from EMH to suggest that Modern humans and Neanderthals are not closely related. However, some controversy has arisen over the characterization of the Mezmaiskaya infant as Neanderthal; and geneticists are not united in believing that no gene flow occurred between Neanderthals and EMH. Most recently, DNA studies suggest that Neanderthals and EMH were not related, but had a common ancestor about 550,000 years ago.

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