When we think of Neanderthals we typically think of a buff, brutish “cave man” because this is the social myth that has been created around them in our modern society. However, nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to these ancient human European ancestors!
Neanderthals lived from about 350 kya to around 24.5 kya in Europe and a few other places but somewhere around 46 kya their numbers began to dwindle. Or, at least that is what we suspect as the population of Homo sapiens (Cro-magnon) began to grow. The Out of Africa Theory, also known as the “Replacement Theory,” of human evolution asserts that Neanderthals were replaced by Cro-mags but this is likely NOT the case at all. In fact, the most likely thing to happen to the Neanderthals is that they were “absorbed” into the Cro Mag populations via interbreeding which explains why Europeans and their descendants today have about 3% Neanderthal DNA in them.
Contrary to public misconception the Neanderthals were NOT the brutish creatures we’ve been lead to believe they were. Yes, they had larger brains than modern humans and yes they had more stocky bodies BUT they had CULTURE! And the evidence for Neanderthal culture comes from what they left behind. For example, Neanderthals made ornaments and bone tools. There is a flute made from a bone of a cave bear made by Neanderthals that dates between 43 kya to 82 kya. This indicates that Neanderthals had appreciation for music and that they knew what music was to begin with. Music is art and what we are finding out is that Neanderthals seem to have loved artistic things!
We also know that Neanderthals controlled and used fire which is the first indication of culture. They knew how to flake stone to make tools and weapons and the front weighed thrusting spears they made were exquisite. Meat was their primary diet and they also took care of their elderly, injured, and ill. This shows that Neanderthals had compassion and a sense of family which are also indicative of culture. It shows that they had some sense of camaraderie and brotherhood. They say you can tell a lot about a people by the way they treat their young, infirm, and old and in the case of the Neanderthals the fact that they took care of their elderly, young, and infirm speaks volumes as PROOF that these people had culture! Had they not then they would have simply abandoned them leaving them to their own devices and the elements but they didn’t do that.
We also know that Neanderthals buried their dead instead of leaving them to rot where they died and this shows that Neanderthals had a sense of decency and maybe even a sense of some sort of afterlife. Sometimes they buried their dead with artifacts, red ocher, or even flowers! This proves that Neanderthals had compassion, remorse, and a host of other feelings that are far from being the brutish “cave man” we’ve been led to believe they were. If they had a sense of some sort of afterlife then that means they likely had some sort of religion or spirituality and that is amazing in my opinion because it again proves that the Neanderthals were far brighter than we suspect!
For at least 10,000 years Neanderthals and Cro Mags coexisted but there were differences between these two ancient human ancestors. For one thing Neanderthals used a large heavy thrusting spear while Cro Mags used a lighter spear that could be thrown further. Neanderthals were, we think, ambush hunters while Cro Mags followed their prey and hunted it down. There’s evidence that Neanderthals may have hunted a bit like Coyotes! Coyotes will spread out and one or two will find prey and chase it right into the jaws of the waiting coyotes down the way. Neanderthals may have used the same technique of ambush and they may have even hunted prey in the same ways as the ancestors of Native Americans! Native Americans would cover themselves with hides such as buffalo hides and get as close to the animals as they could before they moved in for the kill. Sometimes the objective was to get the buffalo stampeding towards a cliff and all that the hunters had to do was to pick up the dead animals at the base of the cliff. However the Neanderthals hunted one thing is clear and that is they had a lot of injuries and broken bones and we know this through Osteology investigations. In fact, their injuries have been compared to football players and boxers and this indicates that Neanderthals took chances and lived rather harsh lives perhaps in much the same ways as ancient warrior societies!
Some researchers have even speculated that Neanderthals may have been night hunters and that makes sense, in fact, as most animals come out at night especially large animals such as deer and elk. Hunting shows that the Neanderthals had a sense of organization and cooperation, intelligence! Their hunts were not haphazard but were apparently planned and this is significant when looking at Neanderthal culture.
One advantage Cro Mags had over Neanderthals, as near as we can tell, is that Cro Mag hunters also employed the use of hunting dogs while Neanderthals apparently didn’t. Dogs would have given Cro Mags and advantage in hunting just as they continue to do today. Dogs would have also offered protection.
Ironically, the larynx in Neanderthals was higher up in the throat than it is in our modern throats but this does NOT mean Neanderthals had no language for, in fact, they could very well and most likely DID have some form of language or verbal communication ability. Their voices would have been high-pitched. Consider than there are many big buffy men who have high voices in the world today rather than the expected “macho voice.” One would expect Neanderthals to have a macho voice but apparently they did not. Communications is yet another sign of culture!
Neanderthals and Cro Mags occupied the same territory for at least 10,000 years and we know this from fossil finds. And we also know that there was some interbreeding with the result being offspring that were Neanderthal-Cro Mag hybrids. Even today we can see Neanderthal traits in some modern humans, some more than others. For example, red hair and blond hair are Neanderthal traits as is the occipital bun at the back of the Neanderthal skull. We still see these features in some modern people! Blue or green or light-colored eyes are also another Neanderthal trait and, again, we see these features in some modern humans as well today. In fact, you could most likely resurrect a Neanderthal and put them into modern society and no one would ever notice!
We tend to interpret things through our own perceptions and/or preconceived notions. Culture plays a big part in forming our perceptions. We also tend to have an attitude of ethnocentrism meaning we tend to see our culture as the best and most desirable. But, this is not necessarily so! Some people want nothing to do with our culture and in fact some even detest it! Our own arrogance prejudices our views to other people’s in many cases and we tend to interpret them and their culture by comparing it to our own. We do this when it comes to looking at ancient people s such as the Neanderthals as well. Neanderthal culture was likely SIMILAR to modern human culture BUT NOT EXACTLY the same! That doesn’t mean ours was better or worse, however.
Neanderthals have gotten a “bad rap” as we’ve painted them as “cave men” and brutes. However, the more we uncover about Neanderthals and their culture and abilities the LESS our preconceived ethnocentrism fits! In fact, what we are leaning about Neanderthals is turning everything we THOUGHT we knew about them on its head!! And, alas, once again the old adage turns out to be true and that is:
“What we thought was,
And what we thought was not,