Neandertals are a line of the genus Homo that lived in Europe and Asia from around 350,000 to 30,000 years ago. For reasons still being sought out in the archaeological record, around 30,000 years ago they disappeared. Most archaeologists suspect that their extinction was directly related to early modern humans’ new and adaptable behaviors as they expanded into Europe and Asia and competed with Neandertals.

Archaeologists’ raison d’être is to read as accurately and quantifiably as possible human behavior from the archaeological record, which in a Paleolithic archaeologist’s case is mostly stone-tool assemblages, animal and human bones, and the reconstructed picture of the ancient environment in which they were found. Additionally, they look to patterns and differences in stone-tool assemblages created and used by Neandertals and by early moderns toward discerning shared and differentiated behavioral traits.

In early May, Science published the work of a vast international team of scientists on the successful DNA sequencing of Neandertal bone samples from three individuals (“A Draft Sequence of the Neandertal Genome,” 7 May 2010). Comparing it with DNA from a representative sampling of living humans from different parts of the world, they discovered that among living human populations in Europe and Asia, 1-4 percent of the population carry DNA shared with Neandertals. “The new DNA study is no surprise,” according to Penn Paleolithic archaeologist Harold Dibble (see main story). “It is the much more logical possibility—that early modern humans and Neandertals interbred—and this study confirms it. The Middle East was the most likely place where interbreeding took place. [But] it’s still exciting because this confirms it.”

So far, what can we say we know about Neandertal behavior? “We know quite a bit,” says Shannon McPherron Gr’94, who first worked with Dibble at Penn and now continues various collaborations from the Max Plank Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

It’s clear that Neandertals were skilled hunters, for example—though it’s not known how they hunted—and that most of their dietary protein came from meat. And they were able to survive in colder climates than we have today, though how much of that ability derived from technology—“fire and clothing”—and how much from their biology is uncertain, he says.

“We know that some Neandertals at some times used fire. We know that Neandertals were skilled stone toolmakers who understood well how to manage their raw-material sources and occasionally moved stone over large distances.  We know that by the end of the Neandertal time period they had a very large geographical extent that reached far into central Asia.  We know that they reached adulthood more quickly than moderns,” McPherron adds.  

“I suspect each of those statements would be agreed on by nearly all archaeologists. I think that Neandertals did not have symbolic behavior.  In the rare instances when we find something that could be symbolic, it tends to be a unique find and not shared among sites in a region or it is something that post-dates [early] moderns’ arrival in Europe.” —B.B.


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FEATURE: On Hearths, Ancient and Modern by Beebe Bahrami
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