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Authors: Ian Tattersall

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On the more humane side, one of the reasons we have such a good sampling of reasonably intact Neanderthal remains is that these hominids at least occasionally buried their dead. And while it has been argued both that the presumed burials never occurred, and that they not only occurred but sometimes contained grave goods, the truth seems to lie somewhere in between. Yes, the Neanderthals did invent the practice of burial; and no, there is no really convincing evidence that they ever did so with the ritual that typically accompanies modern human burials.
Much as we want to see echoes of ourselves in this practice (which Neanderthals apparently invented before our ancestors did), it is impossible to know whether or not Neanderthal burials were overlarded with all of the symbolic baggage with which ours are. That they imply some sort of deep empathetic feeling seems close to certain; but in the broader context of what we know about Neanderthals, it is far less probable that they imply belief in an afterlife—something that would indeed demand symbolic cognitive abilities.


By the time diagnostic Neanderthal remains are known in Europe, the stone-working tradition known as the “Mousterian,” using variants of the prepared-core technique, had become entrenched. Indeed, in Europe the Mousterian is virtually synonymous with
Homo neanderthalensis,
although a very similar toolkit was also produced by other hominids in North Africa and the Levant. The most characteristic implements of the Mousterian are modestly sized sharp points and convex-sided scrapers, or even small teardrop handaxes made on flakes; but the number of variations is endless. This may not, however, have been through the toolmakers' specific intention. For while more than 50 distinct Mousterian tool forms were defined by mid-twentieth-century archaeologists, more recent researchers have recognized that there is in fact more of a continuum of form. This is due to a complex and discontinuous sequence of actions, as flakes made from superior materials were continually resharpened to maintain their functionality. Indeed, it was cleanly and predictably fracturing rocks themselves that were the key to making the best Mousterian tools. Good materials were evidently highly prized and regularly sought far afield, showing how valuable they were. Not infrequently, the nearest source of the rock used to make at least some of the tools found at Mousterian sites was many miles away—hence the speculation over the fate of those unfortunate Neanderthals at El Sidrón.

The need for good materials was occasioned by the Mousterians' sheer skill, for they were gifted stoneworkers who disdained poor materials, only making crude implements out of them when—as was frequently the case—there was no alternative. The Neanderthals instinctively knew stone, as a modern cabinetmaker instinctively knows wood. And while a piece of silicified limestone might be good enough for producing a simple flake meant to be used only until its edge went blunt, the Mousterians carefully fashioned a good piece of flint or chert, then gave it a new edge over and over again until it was too small to be of further use. The discovery of scraping tools or points bearing traces of resin confirms that Neanderthals often set such tools into wooden handles, or used them as spear tips, binding them in position with leather thongs or sinews. The Mousterian toolkit was clearly the product of intelligent and dexterous

Mousterian flint tools made by Neanderthals at various sites in France. These skillfully shaped tools include two small handaxes, two scrapers, and a point, all made on stone flakes using the prepared-core approach. Photo by Ian Tattersall.

Yet perhaps not beings just like us. Despite their frequent beauty, and for all the skill that went into making them, Mousterian tools showed a certain monotony over all the vast area that the Neanderthals inhabited. Several varieties of the Mousterian have been named, and are still recognized. But uniformity in concept was the rule of the day, and it's likely that the minor variations we do see in Neanderthal toolkits broadly reflect local differences in activity due to differential availability of resources, or occasionally to some refinement over time, rather than to the experimentation with different ways of doing things you'd expect
find among geographically scattered modern people. What's more, while they hafted stone tools into wood, Neanderthals rarely seem to have made tools of other soft materials. Bone and antler are plentiful at Neanderthal sites, and were abundantly fashioned into artifacts by later Europeans. But the Mousterian toolmakers rarely took advantage of these materials—although one of the rare examples of a Mousterian bone tool, from the 50-thousand-year-old site of La Quina and evidently used for the purpose of retouching stone tools, appears to have been made from a piece of hominid cranium. In this case and in others, the Mousterians bashed bones as though they were stones, with none of the sensitivity to the special mechanical properties of soft materials shown by their successors. In short, spectacular as it was, Neanderthal craftsmanship was pretty stereotyped.

The upshot of all of this is that we find nothing in the technological record of the Neanderthals to suggest that they were symbolic thinkers. Skillful, yes; complex, certainly. But not in the way that we are. As a species,
Homo neanderthalensis
seems to have fully participated in the hominid trend over time toward more challenging behaviors, and toward more subtle and intricate relationships with the environment. It certainly participated in the hominid trend toward bigger brains, possibly taking this tendency to its most extreme expression. But behaviorally there was no qualitative break with the past; the Neanderthals were simply doing what their predecessors had done, if apparently better. In other words, they were like their ancestors, only more so. We are not. We are symbolic.



Stone implements and their means of manufacture are hardly ironclad proxies for symbolic thought processes on the part of the toolmakers; and indeed it can be argued that we know of little if anything in Old Stone Age technology that could demonstrate such mental processes. Throughout this period, with few exceptions, we can confidently infer symbolic intent only from overtly symbolic objects, or from the results of explicitly symbolic actions. Of course, identifying such expressions is more easily said than done. Burial, as we have seen, may well have other motivations. And despite the fact that ochre was widely used in symbolic contexts by later people, there is no evident reason why the well-documented grinding of pigments that took place at various Neanderthal sites need necessarily imply intent of this kind. Even recognizing “symbolic” objects can be a tough call. A cave wall decorated with lively animal images leaves no doubts; but given that if you sufficiently desire to you may interpret a wide variety of scratches and other strange markings as symbolic, this can become a very gray area indeed.

With the Neanderthals we find ourselves at best somewhere toward the more dubious end of that gray area. And it must surely be significant that, from the entire expanse of time and space the Neanderthals
we have nothing that we can both confidently associate with them
unambiguously interpret as a piece demonstrating modern cognitive processes. There is certainly the odd straw in the wind, and a few uncertain objects are known that scientists argue about. But this is hardly unexpected in a record left behind by a big-brained close human relative that clearly displayed complex behavior patterns. What is almost certainly more telling than such putative flashes of the symbolic spirit, is that there is no substantive evidence that our style of thinking and its expression were routine aspects of Neanderthal consciousness or Neanderthal societies.

The most striking thing of all, though, is the astonishing contrast between the impressive but prosaic material record bequeathed us by the Neanderthals, and the symbol-drenched lives of the fully modern people who succeeded them in Europe. These new people, colloquially known as the Cro-Magnons, entered the subcontinent around 40 thousand years ago, bringing with them so-called Upper Paleolithic material cultures that, however distant from us, provide abundant evidence that these people viewed and experienced the world in essentially the same way that we do. Such evidence includes the astonishingly powerful art of the Lascaux, Chauvet, and Altamira caves that we encountered in
chapter 1.
And the Cro-Magnons' arrival on the Neanderthals' territory heralded an equally telling acceleration in the tempo of technological change, as the artists or their fellows explored the imaginative possibilities opened to them by the new form of reasoning. Clearly, for all the Neanderthals' formidable resourcefulness and skills, the Cro-Magnons were creatures of an entirely new order.

One of the world's earliest artworks: a carving of a horse in mammoth ivory, probably around 34 thousand years old. This is a supremely symbolic object: in its flowing lines it is not merely a representation of the chunky horses that roamed the Ice Age steppes of Europe, but an abstraction of the graceful essence of the horse. Vogelherd, Germany: drawing by Don McGranaghan.

We see this not only in their material productions, but in less direct indicators such as the higher population densities that are reflected in the number and size of Cro-Magnon sites. Indeed, it is most probably the Cro-Magnons' abilities to exploit the environment much more intensively than the Neanderthals could, as well as their evident advantages in planning if it ever came to direct conflict, that led to the total disappearance of the latter within ten millennia of the new hominids' arrival. It has been argued that, in the run-up to the last peak of cold that occurred some 20 thousand years ago, Neanderthals were already in terminal decline; and this may well have been the case regionally, as in the southern tip of Iberia, which late Neanderthals seem to have abandoned before the Cro-Magnons arrived. But it is unlikely that no contact was made between the two kinds of hominid anywhere within the huge territory that the Neanderthals had inhabited, and there are some rather speculative indirect indications—in addition to the DNA—that the two species did encounter each other.

Cave entrances and rock overhangs are common features in limestone areas of Europe, and were preferred living places for early humans because of the natural shelter they provided. Still, the epithet “cave men” is certainly not justified. Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons alike roamed and camped widely over the landscape, and we associate them with caves simply because such places are relatively protected from erosion, and thus preferentially preserve the traces of ancient occupation. Many caves and rock shelters preserve multiple layers of debris left behind by successive generations of both Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons (usually as indicated by the artifacts they left behind—their bones are much more rarely found). Where a single site has evidence of both hominids, the Upper Paleolithic levels almost invariably overlie the latest Mousterian strata, the two most often distinctly separated by sterile sediments signifying that the site was abandoned for a period of
Only two localities show possible evidence of Mousterian overlying Upper Paleolithic before finally being definitively replaced.

But at a few very late sites there is evidence of yet another cultural tradition—known as the “Châtelperronian” and found at a scattering of sites in western France and northern Spain—that incorporates features of both the Mousterian and the Aurignacian (the first cultural phase of the Upper Paleolithic). The Châtelperronian industry exhibits not only the “flake” tools of the Mousterians, but also “blade” tools like those that were a major feature of the Aurignacian tool kit, in addition to bone and ivory objects. As you'll recall, blades are those slender flakes, more than twice as long as wide, that occasionally also turn up in Africa in much earlier contexts; and in Europe they are a Cro-Magnon hallmark. In recent years, the Châtelperronian has generally been viewed as the handiwork of Neanderthals, possibly as a result of acculturation due to contact with modern humans, who were well established in Europe by Châtelperronian times. Sites attributed to the Châtelperronian all fall in the very brief 36-thousand- to 29-thousand-year range, whereas radiocarbon dates indicate that Cro-Magnons were already in Spain by 40 thousand years ago, having likely arrived from the east. It is worth noting, though, that radiocarbon dating in this remote time period is rather tricky, due partly to the minuscule amounts of radiocarbon that remain in samples of that age. Recent work indicates that dates obtained using older methods tend to be a bit young, and recent high-precision dates have suggested to some researchers that the period of overlap between the two hominid species was both earlier and briefer than traditionally believed—another reason for concluding that abrupt replacement was involved.

BOOK: Masters of the Planet
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