The Neanderthal Influence

After visiting eleven decorated caves in northern Spain, including two replicas, I came away with a tremendous sense of admiration and respect for the artists who worked on them.  My favorite, by far, was El Castillo, the largest of four caves on the beautiful mountain of the same name (pictured below).  For starters, it has yielded evidence of an incredibly long span of occupation – over 150,000 years.cave El Castillo

That means it was home to Neanderthals, who, most texts explain, first appeared in Europe about 300,000 years ago.  Homo sapiens (modern humans) started living in the El Castillo cave about 40,000 years ago.  Both groups apparently shared the area for about 5,000 years.  All those dates are subject to challenge.

ENTRADA A LA CUEVA DE EL CASTILLO EN PUENTE VIESGO

El Castillo  (modern entrance shown in photo) is no dank, narrow cave.  Back in the Paleolithic era, it had a natural arch opening and a wide area lit by sunlight, making it a bright, airy spot for a campsite, a meeting area, or even a village shelter in bad weather.  It also has a fine view of the valley below. ( See photo.)

cave view from El Castillo

In the front section now under excavation, different levels seem clearly separated.  The ones with human occupation look much darker because they include carbon from fires.  The periods in which the cave was occupied only by animals are marked by pale yellow bands.  But how do researchers know that a certain level was Neanderthal rather than modern human?  It turns out it’s based on agreed-upon dates and tool styles.  Neanderthals succeeded Homo Heidelbergensis in Europe about 300,000 years ago and died out between 35,000 and 40,000 years ago for reasons unknown.  If the carbon dates for a layer come back between 40 and 300 thousand years old, it’s identified as Neanderthal.  Maybe.  Certain stone tools and objects made from antler and bone are also typical of this period.  The truth is the dates keep changing, and the whole field of study is in a state of flux.

El Castillo Frieze wall

So, did Neanderthals paint at least some of these dots on the walls of El Castillo, a couple of which, including one of the dots in the photo, have been dated to over 41,000 years old?  Another part of the same panel  was found to be 25,000 years old, and yet another to be 37,000 years old. (See labelled photo. The number of years is listed first, then the margin of error.)  That covers 16,000 years on a single panel of the cave!  If Neanderthals did paint some of that panel, it would be toward the end of their reign in Europe and the beginning of the ascendancy of modern humans.  According to a study published in Nature, pockets of Neanderthals survived in Europe until 39,260 years ago.  Even given that, it’s not clear which group painted the dots on the wall of El Castillo.

One problem we face in answering that question is the paucity of dated samples.  It’s very expensive to complete carbon dating or uranium-thorium dating on a piece of cave art, and the process right now requires taking a tiny sample of the paint off the wall.  Once dating techniques improve and the cost comes down, we’ll know a lot more about the dates and sequence in which different paintings were made.

March Neanderthal seals painting

Right now, archaeologists are reluctant to say more than it’s possible that some of the art in El Castillo might have been made by Neanderthals. They admit that Neanderthals may have painted a couple of seals on a stalactite in a cave near Malaga, Spain (photo), and they may have carved bird bones and deer teeth, and left crosshatch marks on a cave wall in Gibraltar.  But their underlying belief is that only modern humans had the sophistication to create art or think symbolically.  That assumption, though, is being challenged.

Three Interesting Sites

The Lozoya Child in Central Spain

In a cave north of Madrid, in what’s come to be called The Valley of the Neanderthals, researchers identified the ritual burial of a Neanderthal toddler they called the Lozoya Child.  Placed on fire sites nearby were horns and antlers from bison, aurochs (cattle), and red deer.  These are also animals commonly painted on Paleolithic cave walls in northern Spain.  The fires were dated between 38,000 and 42,000 years old.  Enrique Baquedano, director of the Regional Archaeological Museum of Madrid, thinks the cave might have been used by Neanderthals as a place to mourn and remember the dead

The Stalagmite Circle in France

Neanderthal circle

It’s also interesting to consider a 1990 find in Bruniquel Cave in southwestern France.  Alerted by 15-year-old Bruno Kowalsczewsi and his father, local cavers squeezed through a narrow opening into an open chamber containing animal bones.  Some 1100′ (336 meters) farther back in the cave, they found several stalagmites that had been purposely broken, then many more.  About 400 pieces had been laid in two rings.  Others had been propped up against them or stacked in piles, some marked with red or black lines (Photo from the National Geographic article listed with sources). There was also a mass of burned bones.  These were not natural formations.  Scientist and caver Sophie Verheyden took over the exploration of the cave after the original archaeologist died, and called on archaeologist Jacques Jaubert and stalagmite expert Dominique Genty for their help.  They tested the stalagmites in 2013 by drilling into them and pulling out test cores.  In studying the cores, they realized part was old minerals and part was new minerals that had been laid down after the fragments were broken off.  The date of the divide was clear but shocking: 176,500 years ago.  There were no known modern humans in the area at the time.  It had to be the work of Neanderthals.  Verheyden’s team’s study appeared in the journal Nature in 2016.

Also interesting was the depth of the placement in the cave, which would have had no natural light, so the makers had to work by torches or fires.  The structure leads to the idea of ritual behavior in the cave.  “A plausible explanation is that this was a meeting place for some type of ritual social behavior,” noted Paola Villa from the University of Colorado Museum.  More than 120 fragments have red and black streaks not found anywhere else in the cave. (Curiously, many of the decorated caves I saw included black marks on stalactites.)  “Some type of ritual behavior” is a pretty wide umbrella term, but the idea of honoring the dead, especially a child, has real resonance in the caves I visited in northern Spain, as do the red circles and black marks.

Verheyden is continuing her exploration of the cave, hoping to answer some of the many questions about the people who used it with such a clear purpose.

 

The Shanidar Skeletons of Iraq

neanderthal-burial-scene-Shanidar-cave-631

Skeletons of eight Neanderthal adults and two infants, dated from 65,000 years ago to 35,000 years ago were found in Shanidar cave in northern Iraq.  One of the adult males was given a pile of stones including worked points made of chert.  And there was evidence of a large fire by the burial site.  (The possible scene pictured comes from the Smithsonian article listed with sources.) Pollen grains found on the adult male skeleton known as Shanidar 4 led some to say he had been buried with flowers known for their medicinal properties: yarrow, cornflower, bachelor’s button, ragwort, grape hyacinth, horsetail, and hollyhock.  Later, skeptics claimed the pollen might have been brought in by gerbils or bees.  I’m not sure why bees would bring pollen to a body in a cave, but that’s the complaint.  Some of the skeletons showed evidence of wounds that had been tended and healed.

The Red Lady

A modern human woman, dubbed “The Red Lady,” was buried about 19,000 years ago in a cave called El Miron, across the valley from El Castillo, and covered with red ochre and flowers.  No one has suggested these pollen grains were the work of gerbils or bees.

 

All this is to say that the Neanderthal influence in El Castillo and other caves should not be dismissed or minimalized.  It’s seems clear that Neanderthals used caves for more than shelter from the storm long before modern humans arrived on the scene.

 

The Creative Juncture

Even if modern humans living in El Castillo didn’t meet their Neanderthal predecessors, they would have noticed their work on the cave walls.  Perhaps the combination of cultures was enough to spur an artistic explosion.  Imagine the conversation: “Look, they put dots along this wall, and hand prints.  This place has important energy relating to death and life.  Let’s add something of our own to claim this space.”  Originally, I thought of it as a competition, just as a gang tags a wall in a disputed territory and another gang comes along and covers the marks with theirs.  A talented artist puts up a beautiful tag.  The opposite one is even better.  Competition spurs growth and invention.  But, in the case of the El Castillo artists, they seem to have incorporated many of the same symbols as their predecessors, which suggests a continuity of thought rather than a total replacement of one ideology with another.

An Even Greater Shock

Everything we think about the Neanderthals and modern humans is based on the timeline.  But what if that timeline is not quite the whole story?  A new possibility was suggested in a study described in Nature Communications.  After analyzing the DNA from a 100,000 year old Neanderthal skeleton discovered in Bruniquel Cave in southwestern Germany, researchers found the mitochondrial DNA resembled that of early modern humans.  In an attempt to explain how this could be, scientists suggested that about 220,000 years ago, a female member of the line that gave rise to Homo sapiens mated with a male Neanderthal.  Imagine the scene at the family dinner.

If this theory is proven to be true, it would make our family tree a good deal more complicated!

So it’s not hard to see the progression that played out in El Castillo and the explosion of creative energy that accompanied the co-existence of these two groups.

It will be interesting to see what we learn about our cousins in the next ten years or so.

 

Sources and interesting reading:

“Bruniquel Cave,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bruniquel_Cave

Calaway, Ewen. “Europe’s first humans: what scientists do and don’t know,” Nature, 22 June 2015, http://www.nature.com/news/europe-s-first-humans-what-scientists-do-and-don-t-know-1.17815/

Clottes, Jean.  Cave Art.  London: Phaidon Publishing, 2010.

“Divje Babe Flute” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divje_Babe_Flute/

“Early Human Migrations,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Early_human-migrations

Edwards, Owen. “The Skeletons of Shanidar Cave,” Smithsonian magazine, March 2010.  http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-skeletons-of-shanidar-cave-7028477/

Garrido Pimentel, Daniel, and Marcos Garcia Diez.  Discover Prehistoric Cave Art in Cantabria: The Caves of Chufin, El Castillo, Las Mondedas, Hornos de la Pena, El Pendo, Covalanas, and Cullalvera, published by Sociedad Regional de Educacion, Cultura y Deporte, Gobierno de Cantabria, no date given.

Ghose, Tia. “Ancient Mourners May Have Left Flowers on ‘Red Lady Grave’” Live Science, 20 May 2015, https://www.livescience.com/50897-red-lady-grave-flowers.html

Gibbons, Ann. “Neanderthals and modern humans started mating early,” Science magazine, 4 July 2017, http:/www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/07/Neanderthals-and-modern-humans-started-mating-early?utm_campaign=news_daily_2017-07-04/

Gray, Richard. “Cave fires and rhino skull used in Neanderthal burial rituals,” This Week, New Scientist, 28 September 2016, https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg23230934-800-cave-fires-and-rhino-skull-used-in-neanderthal-burial-rituals/

Jaubert, Jacques, Sophie Verheyden, Dominique Genty, and others.  “Early Neanderthal constructions deep in Bruniquel Cave in southwestern France,” Nature (534) 02 June 2016, https://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v534/n7605/full/nature18291.html/

“Neanderthals, humans may have coexisted for thousands of years,” Associated Press, 22 August 2014, CBC, http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/neanderthals-humans-may-have-coexisted-for-thousands-of-years-1.2742067/

Rincon, Paul.  “Neanderthal ‘artwork’ found in Gibraltar cave,” BBC News, 1 September 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-28967746/

“Shanidar Cave,” Wikipedia, https?en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shanidar_Cave

Than, Ker. “Neanderthal Burials Confirmed as Ancient Ritual,” National Geographic, 16 Deccember 2013, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/12/131216-la-chapelle-neaderthal-burials-graves/

Than, Ker. “World’s Oldest Cave Art Found – Made by Neanderthals?” National Geographic News, 14 June 2012, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/06/120614-neanderthal-cave-paintings-spain-science-pike/

UNESCO World Heritage Center. “Cave of Altamira and Paleolithic Cave Art of Northern Spain,” UNESCO, http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/310

Von Petzinger, Genevieve.  The First Signs. New York: Atria Books, 2016.

Wong, Sam. “Neanderthal artist revealed in a finely carved raven bone,” New Scientist Daily News, 29 March 2017, https://www.newscientist.com/article/2126292-neanderthal-artist-revealed-in-a-finely-carved-raven-bone/

Yong, Ed.  “A Shocking Find in a Neanderthal Cave in France,” The Atlantic, May 2016.  https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/05/the-astonishing-age-of-a-neanderthal-cave-construction-site/484070/

Overthrowing Old Theories

We’ve long thought of ancient people as a little (or a lot) less sophisticated than we are.  Maybe the March of Progress illustration is to blame, but we see the folks who came before us as kind of dull-witted.  I mean, they didn’t have iPhones, right?

Worse is the assumption that they also lacked intelligence and emotional complexity, even language.  This despite extensive evidence to the contrary, including new finds at Blombos Cave in South Africa, including engraved red ochre blocks, ochre mixing kits, shell beads, as well as bone and stone tools dated 70,000 to 100,000 years ago!

Let’s take a boat

And why do we assume that our ancient ancestors had to walk everywhere when evidence of their boating ability abounds?

Humans crossed open sea and reached Australia by boat 50 – 75,000 years ago. (Kimberly rock art shown in photo)

Homo kimberley-hand-stencil 40,000 kya

Thomas Stasser and Eleni Panagopoulou’s work on Crete uncovered stone artifacts over 130,000 years old.  Their conclusion: modern humans were not the first to sail the Mediterranean.  Neanderthals, or perhaps even earlier hominins arrived before them.

Homo map Crete at center

Map of Mediterranean – Crete at center

Even earlier evidence points to hominins’ ability to sail.  Homo Floresiensis, the so-called “Hobbit People” for their diminutive size, braved treacherous deep sea waters to reach the island of Flores in what is now Indonesia.  Some artifacts on the island are 800,000 years old.

England enjoyed at least four waves of colonizers, starting 800,000 years ago.  The Boxgrove site on the southern coast yielded the oldest hominin remains: a leg bone and two teeth from what might be Homo heidelbergensis, considered the ancestor of both Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens.

But in the Americas

On the other hand, the peopling of the Americas is always described as a plodding migration of humans along a single path.  According to the theory most often taught in school, Ice Age hunters followed big game across what was then the land bridge between Siberia and Alaska, known as Beringia.

It wasn’t a new theory.  Jose de Acosta of Spain first proposed it in 1590.

The Smithsonian vs. Clovis First

The Smithsonian Institution has had an interesting relationship with Clovis First.  Although the first “Clovis” point was discovered in 1906 by George McJunkin, a self-educated African-American cowboy and former slave, it didn’t come to the attention of the Smithsonian until the 1920s when Jess Higgins, the director of the Colorado Museum of Natural History, found a similar point embedded in an extinct bison. In the 1930s more points like these were discovered near Clovis, New Mexico, which gave its name to the famous lithic style.  The theory that grew out of these finds stated that the first Americans came across the Land Bridge from Asia and from there spread throughout the Americas.

Ales Hrdlicka, taking over from William Henry Holmes at the Smithsonian, used his considerable influence to squash any research into the Clovis theory.  But the evidence kept piling up that modern humans were in North America at the same time as mammoths and Ice Age bison, about 13,000 years ago.

clovis_continent_647kb

The Paleoindian Database of the Americas map above shows the distribution of Clovis points found in North America.  The highest concentration is in the middle south.

So the push was on, with renegade western archaeologists pitted against the stodgy Eastern establishment.  The theory eventually proved so popular that it was accepted as dogma.  In a strange turn of events, anyone who questioned Clovis First was ridiculed by the archaeological establishment.  Its force became so strong that any study that produced results conflicting with it was considered flawed.  Scientists learned to ignore results that didn’t fit the model.

Thousands of maps like this one, courtesy of Bing, were created, presenting an over-simplified and probably incorrect picture of the peopling of the Americas.

Homo beringamigration

Over the years, finds that conflicted with Clovis First kept coming in.  Clovis points are concentrated in the southeastern part of the USA, not the west, as would be expected from the Clovis First migration theory.

In yet another strange turn-around, Dennis Stanford of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History now claims there was never any evidence of Clovis points originating in Siberia.  He now claims that the points are Solutrean, and the colonizers came from northern Spain to the eastern coast of North America.

And now to South America

When Tom Dillehay came up with a date of 14,800 years ago for the Monte Verde site in Chile, the archaeological community, in a fit of collective panic, said they simply couldn’t accept evidence that refuted their favorite theory.  No site in South America could predate the opening of the ice sheets in North America.

Homo monte-verde-chile

CREDIT: KENNETH GARRETT/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SOCIETY, 1997 TOM D. DILLEHAY, STANDING, AND MARIO PINO LEADING A SCIENTIFIC TEAM THAT FOUND EVIDENCE IN MONTE VERDE IN CHILE THAT HUMANS HAD BEEN IN THE NEW WORLD 1,300 YEARS BEFORE PREVIOUSLY THOUGHT. 

And now, Dillehay has published a new paper in PLOS One, with dates from a different section of the Monte Verde site, establishing human presence there 18,500 years ago.

This brings up the possibility that the direction of the migration arrow in the old model was dead wrong.  Maybe people showed up in South America and then moved north.

upside-down-americas-250x300

But here’s the strangest part of this odd drama:  Why, when we accept seafaring relatives in the Mediterranean as far back as the Neanderthals – maybe farther – can’t we accept seafaring explorers who arrived in the Americas?  Not just coastline huggers.  True seafarers, excellent navigators from the South Pacific.

Maybe they were outlaws or people who got lost at sea.  Or maybe they just had to see what was out there.

PTLI new cover

That’s the premise of the second book in my series, Past the Last Island.  A group of explorers, driven away from their homeland by natural disasters, purposely sets out into the open ocean to find whatever lies beyond the edge of the world.  I believe that’s a human trait.  It’s what took us to the moon and someday, I hope, to Mars and other planets.

If we grant the people from long ago the same intelligence and complexity we value in ourselves, we open up new possibilities in our history, and our collective story becomes that much richer.

 

(The next big shake-up in the ancients’ world is going to come from China. Stay tuned.)

 

Sources and interesting reading:

“Blombos Cave,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blombos_Cave

Bower, Bruce. “Ancient Hominids Took to the Seas,” Science News, 27 November 2012, news.discovery.com/human/evolution/ancient-hominids_sailors_seas.htm

“Clovis: Why the Controversy?” The Bradshaw Foundation, http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/journey/clovis.html

Curry, Andrew. “Finding the First Americans,” The New York Times, 19 May 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/20/opinion/sunday/who-arrived-in-the-americas-first.html

Dillehay, Tom, and others. “New Archaeological Evidence for an Early Human Presence at Monte Verde, Chile,” PLOS One, 18 November 2015, http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0141923.

Dixon, Jim, “Vicariant models for the initial colonization of North America,” People Colonizing New Worlds, 1st Harvard Australian Studies Symposium, 17-18 April, 2009

“First Americans arrived 2500 years before we thought,” New Scientist, Daily News, 24 March 2011, http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn20287-first-americans-arrived-2500-years-before-we-thought?DCMP=OTC-rss&nsref+online-news

Gugliotta, Guy. “When Did Humans Come to the Americas?” Smithsonian Magazine, February 2013, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/when-did-humans-come-to-the-americas-4209273/

“Homo Floresiensis,” Human Origins, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/human-fossils/species/homo-floresiensis

Jones, Tim. “100,000 Year-Old Incised Ochre Found at Blombos Cave,” Anthropology.net: Beyond bones and stones, 12 June 2009, http://anthropology.net/2009/06/12/100000-year-old-incissed-ochre-found-at-blombos-cave/

Hawks, John. “Did humans approach the southern tip of South America more than 18,000 years ago?” John Hawks Weblog, 19 November 2015, http://johnhawks.net/weblog/reiews/archaeology/america/dillehay-monte-verde-2015.html

Mann, Charles C. “The Clovis Point and the Discovery of America’s First Culture,” Smithsonian Magazine, November 2013, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-clovis-point-and-the-discovery-of-americas-first-culture-3825828/?no-ist

Meltzer, David. “Why don’t we know when the first people came to North America?” American Antiquity, 54(3), 1989, 471-490.  (This article is interesting but out of date.)

Map of Clovis points distribution, PIDBA, Paleoindian Database of the Americas, web.utk.edu/~dander19/clovis_continent-647kb.jpg

“Neanderthals May Have Sailed to Crete,” Discovery.com, 13 December 2012, newsdiscovery.com/history/archaeology/Neanderthals-sailed-Mediterranean-121115.htm

Pringle, Heather. “Primitive Humans Conquer Sea, Surprising Finds Suggest, National Geographic, 17 February 2010,  news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/02/100217-crete-primitive-humans-mariners-seafarers-mediterranean-sea/

Simmons, Alan. “Extinct pygmy hippopotamus and early man in Cyprus,” Nature, 333, 09 June 1988, 554-557, hhtp://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v333/n6173/abs/333554a0.html

“Upside-Down Map of the Americas” Peregringo blog, http://peregringo.com/?attachment_id=315

Wayman, Erin. “The Top Five Human Evolution Discoveries from England,” Smithsonian Magazine 25 July 2012, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/the-top-five-human-evolution-discoveries-from-england-6792571/

Wilford, John Noble.  “On Crete, New Evidence of Very Ancient Mariners,” The New York Times, 15 February 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/16/science/16archeo.html

 

 

 

Neanderthals

Poor Neanderthals.  No matter how many wonderful things we learn about them, they remain our lesser predecessors, dismissed as stupid and coarse.

Neanderthal man

The problem began with their discovery.  In 1856, workers in the Neander Valley near Dusseldorf, Germany came across a skull that looked human, except it had a prominent brow ridge, large eye sockets, and a flattened cranium.  Thick fossilized bones were discovered nearby.  At first, experts thought the bones belonged to humans with rickets.  They explained the flattened head by suggesting it had been deformed by repeated blows.

After the Neander valley find, scientists realized similar bones had already been uncovered in Belgium in 1829 and Gibraltar in 1848.  Thus, they decided the bones represented a sub-set of humans who suffered from rickets, a vitamin D deficiency that results in the softening and distortion of bones.  (Curiously, several Neanderthal skeletons do show evidence of severe arthritis.)

Anglo Irish geologist William King suggested the name Homo neanderthalensis, based on the location of the German find.  (This blog post uses both Neanderthal and Neandertal since both terms are in common use.) He decided Neanderthals were incapable of complex thought.

Historical context

While many people in 19th century Europe accepted the Biblical story of creation, in which God created all creatures at once, some scientists had already questioned it.  They knew some species, like the dinosaurs, had gone extinct, so there must be some mechanism for the progression of species.  In 1809 Jean Baptiste Lamarck published Philosophie Zoologique, in which he argued that nature is governed by certain laws that lead to a progression of more advanced types of organisms through environmental change.  While his theories were seen as quite radical, they stirred a good deal of debate.

In 1859 (only three years after the Neander valley find), Charles Darwin published his book On the Origin of Species through Natural Selection.  He pointed out that more young are born each year than can survive.  Those with an advantage, something that allowed them to be more successful in their environment, were more likely to survive and reproduce.  Since longer-necked giraffes could reach higher branches, they got more to eat, so they would be healthier.  They could chase off rivals, mate, and reproduce.  Those offspring were more likely to inherit the longer neck.  In the case of the famous finches in the Galapagos that now bear his name, he saw that various finch species had developed different beak shapes in order to better access and process their selected foods.

Knowing that The Descent of Man, his treatise on human evolution, would shock those who believed in the Bible creation story, Darwin held off publishing it until 1871.  In this, he argued that all life forms, including people, evolved from simpler ones. He used the metaphor of the tree.  While a tree may have many branches that grow from the same roots, some survive and grow while others shrivel and die.  He suggested that far back in time, apes and humans shared a common ancestor.  Some, like the Neanderthals, did not thrive.   Darwins_tree_of_life_1859

 

In the public imagination, those two works combined in the simplified format of “Survival of the Fittest.”  Neanderthal Darwin's theoryOr “Only the strong survive.”  That provided a reason that Homo sapiens survived and Homo neanderthalensis didn’t: we were clearly better, stronger, brighter, more inventive, more adaptive, and definitely prettier. Or so it seemed.

 

 

From 1899 – 1905, a Croatian paleontologist named Dragutin Gorjanovic-Kramberger assembled a huge collection of animal fossils, stone implements, and Neanderthal bones he found on Husnjak hill, near the town of Krapina.  He made careful, extensive notes about the stratigraphy, geology, hydrology, and paleoclimatology, in an era when many others simply dug up bones.  He felt these hominids, whom he named Homo primigenius (later known as Homo neanderthalensis) were the ancestors of Homo sapiens.

Unfortunately, his studies were eclipsed in Europe by the discovery of a Neanderthal skeleton at La Chapelle aux Saints, in France.  But more about Dragutin Gorjanovic-Kramberger later.

The Boule image

In 1908, after the discovery of the skeleton of an old Neanderthal man, along with remains of wooly rhinoceros, reindeer, ibex, hyena, bison, and wild horse at Neanderthal illustrationLa Chapelle aux Saints, Marcelline Boule, the influential French paleontologist, concluded that the Neanderthal was brutish, bent-kneed, and did not stand fully upright.  The illustration  he had made by Frantisek Kupka (pictured on the left) shows a hairy gorilla-like figure with opposable toes.

 

All of this makes sense, I suppose, given the rise of “Survival of the Fittest” theories and the search for “The Missing Link.”  The public loved it.  The powerful but brutish ape-man appears in Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 story, “The Lost World,” and later in H. G. Wells’ 1921 story “The Grisly Folk,” in which Neanderthals are hideous, primitive cannibals.

Neanderthal King Kong

The most famous personification of the brutish ape-man is King Kong, who was described as “neither beast nor man.”  The original film (1933) sets up Kong as the King of Beasts on Skull Island, an island lost in time, where giant dinosaurs roam.  Kong is captured and taken to New York, where he’s exhibited as the Eighth Wonder of the World.  Things do not go well, and Kong winds up being shot down by airplanes as he climbs to the top of the Empire State Building in an attempt to abduct (or protect) Ann Darrow, a white woman in a filmy dress. (Photo, right)

 

The concept proved so popular, it reappeared many times, including Son of King Kong, King Kong vs. Godzilla, King Kong Escapes, King Kong (1976), King Kong Lives, and the most recent King Kong (2005). (In the Peter Jackson remake, Kong is a silverback gorilla, not an ape-man).  More King Kong films are in the works, including Kong: Skull Island, and Godzilla vs. Kong.

King Kong, or something very similar, even wound up in a Superman comic (pictured, left).

Neanderthal Titano-Kong

Boule’s theories about Neanderthals and the terrible illustration that accompanied them still stick in the public mind, even in the face of contradictions.  Recent studies have shown that Neanderthals had a robust build and a larger brain than Homo sapiens.  A 2007 study of the Neanderthal genome in several individuals, led by Carles Laleuza-Fox and published in Science, suggested that Neanderthals had varied skin pigmentation and eye color, just as modern humans do.

 

And no language

When I was in college, one psychology class used a textbook titled The Difference in Man and the Difference It Makes.  One of its theses was that only Homo sapiens had complex speech.  That was part of what separated us from the other animals.  This despite the evidence from whales and dolphins of varied, complex, even regional vocal patterns.  Doesn’t matter.  If we can’t understand them, they don’t count.

So it’s not surprising that experts decided that Neanderthals didn’t have complex language skills.  As a matter of fact, Neanderthals were often dismissed as mute.  But the fact is the Neanderthal hyoid bone, which was used as evidence of their lack of language is, according to new research, “virtually indistinguishable” from our own.  A study published in PLOS ONE showed that Neanderthals used their vocal tract the same way modern humans do.

“By analyzing the mechanical behavior of the fossilized bone with micro x-ray imaging, we were able to build models of the hyoid that includes the intricate internal structure of the bone, “Stephen Wroe, one of the authors, said. “From this research, we can conclude that it’s likely that the origins of speech and language are far, far older than once thought.”

 

 

So what is true about Neanderthals?

They spread out over a very large area, from North Africa around the entire Mediterranean up to the ice sheets that covered northern Europe.  They arrived sometime around 250,000 years ago, though some sources say “proto-Neanderthals” arrived far earlier – up to 600,000 years ago.

Neanderthal sites map

They are closely related to modern humans, differing in DNA by only 0.12%.

They co-existed with modern humans for 2500 to 5000 years, depending on the location, and interbred with them.  Most of us carry between 1% and 4% of Neanderthal DNA, though the parts we share vary.

They started making stone tools about 300,000 years ago.  By 170,000 years ago, they had a sophisticated tool set.

They practiced burial rituals and apparently cared for their wounded.

They lived in social communities and built buildings and watercraft, probably crossing the Mediterranean Sea as early as 110,000 years ago.

They were skilled hunters, able to bring down deer, reindeer, ibex, even aurochs.

They dried fresh meat

They also cooked their vegetables.

They painted on cave walls and used personal adornment.

They went extinct somewhere around 40,000 years ago, at the start of a very cold period in Europe, about the time modern humans arrived.  Theories explaining their extinction vary widely.

 

necklace, eagle talons

The eagle talon necklace

Back in 1899, Dragutin Gorjanovic-Kramberger (Remember the paleontologist from Croatia?) discovered a very rich Neanderthal fossil site near Krapina.  His many specimens (hundreds of bones and teeth, over 800 stone tools, over 2000 animal remains) were subsequently stored in the Department of Geology and Paleontology at the Croatian Natural History Museum in Zagreb.  One of these finds was a set of polished eagle talons.  A 2015 study by Davorka Radovic and others, published in PLOS ONE, shows that these eight talons from Krapina, dating to 130,000 years ago, show clear signs of human manipulation (cuts and polishing).  The authors note in their abstract:

“These features suggest they were part of a jewelry assemblage, – the manipulations a consequence of mounting the talons in a necklace or bracelet.  An associated phalanx articulates with one of the talons and has numerous cut marks, some of which are smoothed.  These white-tailed eagle bones, discovered more than 100 years ago, all derive from a single level at Krapina and represent more talons than found in the entire European Mousterian period.  Presence of eight talons indicates that the Krapina Neandertals acquired and curated eagle talons for some kind of symbolic purpose.   Some have argued that Neandertals lacked symbolic ability or copied this behavior from modern humans.  These remains clearly show that the Krapina Neandertals made jewelry well before the appearance of modern humans in Europe, extending ornament production and symbolic activity early into the European Mousterian.”

Since other Neanderthal sites have included twisted fibers, it’s reasonable to suggest that Neanderthals strung together the eagle talons in a pattern consistent with the wear on the talons.

Neanderthals had an eagle talon necklace 130,000 years ago!

 

Perhaps it’s time we gave the Neanderthals an image makeover.  They certainly deserve it.

 

 

Sources and interesting reading:

“A Tree of Life for Gene Flow within Species,” Charles Darwin’s 1837 sketch, Scientific Blogging, Science 2.0, http://science 20.com/news/articles/tree-life-gene-flow-within-species-100622

Begun, David (ed.) A Companion to Paleoanthropology. Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.

D’Anastasio, Ruggero, Stephen Wroe, and others, “Micro-Biomechanics of the Kebara 2 Hyoid and Its Implication for Speech in Neanderthals,” PLOS ONE, 18 December 2013, http://jounrals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0082261#references

“Dragutin Gorjanovic-Kramberger,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dragutin_Gorjanovi%C4%87-Kramberger

Graham, Ruth. “Our lost cousins, the Neanderthals,” The Boston Globe, 13 February 2015.

Hawks, John.  “Infographic: Field guide to Pleistocene hookups,” from John Hawks’ blog, 21 December 2013, http://johnhawks.net/weblog/topics/humor/field-guide-pleistocene-hookups-2013.html

Hogenboom, Melissa, Science reporter.  “Neanderthals could speak like modern humans, study suggests,” 20 December 2013, BBC News, http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-25465102

“Homo Neanderthalensis,” Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Human Origins, http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/human-fossils/species/homo-neanderthalensis

“King Kong,” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_Kong

Lalueza-Fox, Carles and others, “A Melanocortin Receptor Allele Suggests Varying Pigmentation among Neanderthals,” Science, 318, 1453-5.

Lents, Professor Nathan H.  “Did Neanderthals Speak?” on The Human Evolution Blog, 9 February 2015, http://thehumanevolutionblog.com/2015/02/09/did-neanderthals-speak?

“Marcellin Boule,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org.Marcellin_Boule

Martinez and others, “Human hyoid bone from the middle Pleistocene site of the Sima de los Huesos (Sierra de Atapuerca, Spain)” Journal of Human Evolution, January 2008, 118-124, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S004724840700139X

McKie, Robin, Science editor. “Why did the Neanderthals die out?” The Guardian 2 June 2013, http://www.the guardian.com/science/2013/jun/02/why-did-neanderthals-die-out

Mintz, Zoe. “Did Neanderthals Speak?  60,000-Year-Old-Hyoid Bone Is ‘Virtually Indistinguishable’ From Our Own,” International Business Times, 3 March 2014, http://www.ibtimes.com/did-neanderthals-speak-60000-year-old-bone-virtually-indistinguishable-our-own-1559113

Morelle, Rebecca, Science reporter.  “Hunter-gatherer European had blue eyes and dark skin,” BBC World Service, 27 January 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-25885519

“Neanderthal,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neanderthal

“Neanderthal Man,” Sheppard Software. http://www.sheppardsoftware.com/Eruopeweb/factfile/Unique-facts-Europe15.htm

“Neanderthals Made Jewelry with Eagle Talons,” Archaeology magazine, 11 March 2015, http://archaeology.org/news/3077-150311-croatia-neanderthal-jewelry

“New Dates for Italy’s Neanderthals,” Archaeology magazine, 5 November 2015, http://archaeology.org/news/3858-151105

“Paleogenomics Lab, Group members,” http://www.ibe.upf-scic.es/research/research-labs-lalueza-fox.html

Radovcic, Davorka, and others, “Evidence for Neandertal Jewelry: Modified White-Tailed Eagle Claws at Krapina,” PLOS ONE, 11 March 2015, http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0119802

Spencer, Frank (ed.) History of Physical Anthropology, vol. 1. New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1997.