How like the Neanderthals are we?

An actor made-up to resemble a Neanderthal man in a business suit traveling on the London Underground. (Source: screen-grab from BBC2 Neanderthals – Meet Your Ancestors)

In the most basic, genetic sense, we were sufficiently alike for us to have interbred with them regularly and possibly wherever the two human groups met. As a result the genomes of all modern humans contain snips derived from Neanderthals (see: Everyone now has their Inner Neanderthal; February 2020). East Asian people also carry some Denisovan genes as do the original people of Australasia and the first Americans. Those very facts suggest that members of each group did not find individuals from others especially repellent as potential sexual partners! But that covers only a tiny part of what constitutes culture. There is archaeological evidence that Neanderthals and modern humans made similar tools. Both had the skills to make bi-faced ‘hand axes’ before they even met around 45 to 40 ka ago.  A cave (La Grotte des Fées) near Châtelperron to the west of the French Alps that was occupied by Neanderthals until about 40 ka yielded a selection of stone tools, including blades, known as the Châtelperronian culture, which indicates a major breakthrough in technology by their makers. It is sufficiently similar to the stone industry of anatomically modern humans (AMH) who, around that time, first migrated into Europe from the east (Aurignacian) to pose a conundrum: Did the Neanderthals copy Aurignacian techniques when they met AMH, or vice versa? Making blades by splitting large flint cores is achieved by striking the cores with just a couple of blows with a softer tool. At the very least Neanderthals had the intellectual capacity to learn this very difficult skill, but they may have invented it (see: Disputes in the cavern; June 2012). Then there is growing evidence for artistic abilities among Neanderthals, and even Homo erectus gets a look-in (see: Sophisticated Neanderthal art now established; February 2018).

Reconstructed burial of a Neanderthal individual at La Chappelle-aux-Saints (Credit: Musée de La Chapelle-aux-Saints, Corrèze, France)

For a long time, a pervasive aspect of AMH culture has been ritual. Indeed much early art may be have been bound up with ritualistic social practices, as it has been in historic times. A persuasive hint at Neanderthal ritual lies in the peculiar structures – dated at 177 ka – found far from the light of day in the Bruniquel Cave in south-western France (see: Breaking news: Cave structures made by Neanderthals; May 2016). They comprise circles fashioned from broken-off stalactites, and fires seem to have been lit in them. The most enduring rituals among anatomically modern humans have been those surrounding death: we bury our dead, thereby preserving them, in a variety of ways and ‘send them off’ with grave goods or even by burning them and putting the ashes in a pot. A Neanderthal skeleton (dated at 50 ka) found in a cave at La Chappelle-aux-Saints appears to have been buried and made safe from scavengers and erosion. There are even older Neanderthal graves (90 to 100 ka) at Quafzeh in Palestine and Shanidar in Iraq, where numerous individuals, including a mother and child, had been interred. Some are associated with possible grave goods, such as pieces of red ochre (hematite) pigment, animal body parts and even pollen that suggests flowers had been scattered on the remains. The possibility of deliberate offerings or tributes and even the notion of burial have met with scepticism among some palaeoanthropologists. One reason for the scientific caution is that many of the finds were excavated long before the rigour of modern archaeological protocols

Recently a multidisciplinary team involving scientists from France, Belgium, Italy, Germany, Spain and Denmark exhaustively analysed the context and remains of a Neanderthal child found in the La Ferrassie cave (Dordogne region of France) in the early 1070s  (Balzeau, A. and 13 others 2020. Pluridisciplinary evidence for burial for the La Ferrassie 8 Neandertal childScientific Reports, v. 10, article 21230; DOI: 10.1038/s41598-020-77611-z). Estimated to have been about 2 years old, the child is anatomically complete. Bones of other animals found in the same deposit were less-well preserved than those of the child, adding weight to the hypothesis that a body, rather than bones, had been buried soon after death. Luminescence dating of the sediments enveloping the skeleton is considerably older than the radiocarbon age of one of the child’s bones. That is difficult to explain other than by deliberate burial. It is almost certain that a pit had been dug and the child placed in it, to be covered in sediment. The skeleton was oriented E-W, with the head towards the east. Remarkably, other Neanderthal remains at the La Ferrassie site also have heads to the east of the rest of their bones, suggesting perhaps a common practice of orientation relative to sunrise and sunset.

It is slowly dawning on palaeoanthropologists that Neanderthal culture and cognitive capacity were not greatly different from those of anatomically modern humans. That similar beings to ourselves disappeared from the archaeological record within a few thousand years of the first appearance of AMH in Europe has long been attributed to what can be summarised as the Neanderthals being ‘second best’ in many ways. That may not have been the case. Since the last glaciation something similar has happened twice in Europe, which analysis of ancient DNA has documented in far more detail than the disappearance of the Neanderthals. Mesolithic hunter-gatherers were followed by early Neolithic farmers with genetic affinities to living people in Northern Anatolia in Turkey – the region where growing crops began. The DNA record from human remains with Neolithic ages shows no sign of genomes with a clear Mesolithic signature, yet some of the genetic features of these hunter-gatherers still remain in the genomes of modern Europeans. Similarly, ancient DNA recovered from Bronze Age human bones suggests almost complete replacement of the Neolithic inhabitants by people who introduced metallurgy, a horse-centred culture and a new kind of ceramic – the Bell Beaker. This genetic group is known as the Yamnaya, whose origins lie in the steppe of modern Ukraine and European Russia. In this Neolithic-Bronze Age population transition the earlier genomes disappear from the ancient DNA record. Yet Europeans still carry traces of that earlier genetic heritage. The explanation now accepted by both geneticists and archaeologists is that both events involved assimilation and merging through interbreeding. That seems just as applicable to the ‘disappearance’ of the Neanderthals

See also: Neanderthals buried their dead: New evidence (Science Daily, 9 December 2020)

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