Physical Anthropology

Understanding the Neanderthal Debate

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Neantherthals and humans

The period of 200 Millennia in which the Neanderthals began their occupation of Europe and western Asia were that of fluctuating climates between periods of extreme cold and warmth. In the north of Europe ice sheets up to a mile thick covered the area periodically, further south there was slightly warmer summers and long cold winters. There were transitions between cold and warm periods. There is no hard evidence that Neanderthals lived close to glacial ice sheets and or close to tundra regions.

Cro-magnon man seems to make his first appearance in Europe about 60,000years ago meaning Neanderthals and cro-magnon man co-existed together for a period of time. The environment was warmer at this point and the landscape was woodland, an area of many diverse food sources, such as red deer.

Homo Neanderthalensis had a robust skeleton, they were much shorter than homo sapiens and stockier, about 5ft, they also had large limb bones, often bowed in the fore arm and thigh, indicating large muscular strength (B. M. Fagan). The Neanderthal also had a chinless skull, sometimes with well-marked brow ridge. They also had a much larger brain in relation to their body size compared to modern humans, but a lower and flatter skull, bun shaped at the back They also had a larger brain capacity compared to modern humans (B. M. Fagan). Neanderthals were also cold adapted with smaller limbs possibly helping in travelling over snow. They also had large nasal cavities (Tatersall Schwartz).

Homo sapiens in comparison have much lighter bones and are called gracile. H. sapiens also have a much more vaulted or rounded cranium and smaller teeth (Tattersall Schwartz). Homo sapiens also have a bipartite brow and a chin. These characteristics are very different from Neanderthals (Tattersall Schwartz).

Neanderthal's adaptation in Europe was very different from that of earlier humans. Their settlement patterns put a larger emphasis on rock shelters and caves, favoured areas for flint, along with the continued use of open-air sites by small groups in favoured hunting areas (Tattersall). Pits have been found in some Neanderthal sites, no one exactly knows why, but it could have been used to store food (Tattersall Schwartz).

Cro-magnons based themselves in areas animal migration routes passed through. Evidence for this can be found in the amount of animal bone found at sites. There has also been evidence found for early cooking and evidence of sharing; one animal was shared between three different campsites. (Tattersall).

Evidence suggests that Neanderthals were expert hunters using weapons such as the spear. Neanderthal had to depend on expert knowledge of animal habits and hunting skills in order to survive. Neanderthals had to spear an animal and or wrestle it to the ground. There have been skeletal remains found with injury marks similar to that of rodeo riders, indicating the hunting of large animals (B. M. Fagan). In the time zone of about 120,000 to 50,000 years ago the evidence for hunting is quite small. Most remains found are of older animals and suggest that they died of natural causes (Tattersall). This was the time of the last interglacial and the evidence suggests that of scavenging. Later, however, about 50,000 years ago animal remains are of that in the prime of life, also along with stone tools, indicating longer periods of occupation and the use of ambush hunting (Tatersall). Neanderthals diet would have consisted of large animals such as the mammoth, reindeer and wild horse. They would also have eaten birds and fish (B. m Fagan).

There is evidence from cro-magnon art that he hunted a wide range of animals such as deer, salmon and birds. Each painting tells the time of year it was painted for example, the woolly rhinoceros painted showing its skin fold which was only visible in the summer and the male salmon which has a spur on its jaw only in spawning season. This clear evidence of cro-magnon man's perceiving the change of the seasons and using it to their advantage (Tattersall).

The stone tools that the Neanderthals used were complex and sophisticated (Mousterian technology). There is a wide variety of these types of tools, such as: hand axes; notched flakes; artefacts for stripping meat and for drying or pressing fibrous plants (B. M. Fagan). There is also evidence to show that Neanderthals used stone tools to sharpen spears and also impact marks on stone points, which suggests that stone points could have been attached to wood as a spearhead. The evidence is rare for this. This would not have been part of the Neanderthals regular weaponry.

Cro-magnon mans weaponry was much more advanced than Neanderthals. The used projectile spears and flakes similar to Neanderthals. They also acquired blade technology which dramatically changed their lives and was a major difference from Neanderthals, this was toward the end of the Neanderthals reign in Europe and may have attributed to there downfall in the beginning of the upper palaeolithic (B .M. Fagan)

Neanderthal did bury their dead and there are many examples of this. There has been a burial discovered at the western foothills of the Himalayas in Teshik-tash in Siberia, consisting of a child in a shallow pit, surrounding his body were six pairs of wild goat antlers. Others have been found like the single burial at Shanidar cave in the Zagros mountains in Iraq. One man found, in Shanidar iv, had a large concentration of pollen found around his body which could only have come from full plants put around the body. These plants were yarrow, cornflower, St. Barnaby's thistle, ragwort, grapehyacinth, hollyhock and woody horse tail . This would have given a delicate mixture of colours: white; yellow and blue flowers and would have meant that this individual could have been revered as a leader or a shaman which would explain the amount of herbal plant pollen. These Plants are still used by the people of that area (R. E. Leakey). Other single burials discovered in France and Central Europe where covered with red ochre powder.

One of the best examples of cro-magnon burials is that of Sungir in Russia. This site which dates, from 28,000 years ago consists of three individuals. Two younger individuals and an older one of sixty . Each of the dead had been dressed in clothing which had over 3,000 ivory beads, tests which showed each bead would have taken I hour to make (Tattersall). Clearly, the differences between the cro-magnon and Neanderthal burials is evident.The huge amount of evidence for belief in after life such as grave goods in cro-magnon sites and the very rare evidence in Neanderthal sites. Sites such as this are very common in cro-magnon burials.

The evidence for language in Neanderthals is not very impressive, the main reasons for this as argued by Tatersall. According to him, Neanderthals do not have the cognitive brain abilities which allow for the formation of language in the brain, also at the base of the skull, a part essential for human speech was inadequate for language as we understand it. A relatively late Neanderthal skull, from France, which was looked at in great detail was found to have only a modestly flexed cranial base. When this vocal tract was tested by computer simulations it was revealed that this individual could not have made sounds essential for language. Another skull was looked at from Italy, which indicated further development of the vocal tract and was probably adequate for further vocal ability. The question of whether Neanderthals had language is still unresolved (Tattersall).

Cro-magnon man on the other hand had language. The evidence for this can be seen in their elaborate hunting plans and the complex society and ritual which cro-magnon man had .

Art seems to have been something which cro-magnon man alone had acquired. There is much evidence for cro-magnon cave art in areas such as the Chauvet cave and alongside the River Coa and Mazouco in Portugal. There is also evidence for portable art which has travelled around a large part of Europe (Arsuaga). There is no hard evidence for Neanderthal art.

The evolutionary relationship between Neanderthal and Homo sapiens is not clear. We did have a common ancestor. However, we cannot be sure what hominid this may be. Neanderthals may have been descendants of Homo heidelbergensis or possibly Homo antecessor both of which or something like them could have been our ancestors. The debate over the evolutionary relationship between Neanderthal and modern humans continues.


The Neanderthals necklace Arsuaga 2003

Extinct humans Ian Tattersall 2001
Jeffrey Schwartz

The making of mankind Richard E. Leakey
Book club associates 1981

Becoming human Ian Tattersall oxford 2000
Evolution and human uniqueness

People of the earth B.M. Fagan prentice hall 2001

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