One of the fields in paleoanthropology I especially like is the cognitive and behavioral evolution. In particular, a challenging matter is the space that neandertals occupy in such field. There are many questions regarding their cognitive abilities and symbolic behavior. The big size of their brains suggests that neandertals would have had a genetic ability for complex cognition. But traditionally it was considered that they did not reach ‘the level’ of modern humans.
We believe that neandertals had a form of language, otherwise they would never have been able to organise themselves to the extent that they did. Assuming that neandertals were capable of some symbolic thought, can we imagine their behavior when they confronted the encroaching Homo sapiens species with different capabilities? Half a century ago it was clearly believed that symbolic thought was a key distinction between modern humans and neandertals. Our knowledge has increased a lot since then, and now we have some evidence suggesting that neandertals did have symbolic thought. Here I collect some of the key findings:
1) In 2012 some scientists wrote an article in Science about the possibility of neandertals being the authors of some paintings in the Spanish Cueva El Castillo (Region of Cantabria): a round red disk and hand stencils, which are fairly basic but still suggesting a certain level of mental sophistication.
However we have one potential barrier for the knowledge we are building up. Because of re-dating of sites, the dates at the crucial time of neandertals presence are changing, mostly pushing everything back. For instance, the re-dating may push back the latest dates of neandertals in the Iberian Peninsula making them more unlikely to be the authors of some findings.
2) Another study released in PNAS in 2009 suggest a symbolic use of marine shells and mineral pigments by neandertals also in Spain (Region of Murcia).
3) Again in Spain we are lucky to have in Atapuerca probable evidence of pre-neandertal rituals 430,000 years ago.
4) Neandertal remains are mainly associated with the Mousterian stone culture (300 Ka-35 Ka), which belongs to the Middle Palaeolithic and is more advanced than Acheulean (1.6 Ma-100 Ka). But in fact there were little changes over thousands of years, indicating that they were not highly innovative.
5) It is also often assumed that Châtelperronian (36 Ka-32 Ka), one of the earliest industry of the Upper Palaeolithic, was invented by neandertals, maybe influenced by modern humans they had contact with. The key site for Châtelperronian is Grotte du Renne (France), where some personal ornaments and other artefacts were found, associated with neandertal remains.
In their last period, the neandertals populations were clearly less ‘classic neandertal-type’ in their physical appearance. A controversial hypothesis says that the Châtelperronian could actually consist of hybrid neandertal-sapiens populations, thus not being anymore a representative case to evaluate the cognitive abilities of ‘classic’ neandertals. This article illustrates the cultural exchange that may have taken place between modern humans and neandertals 40,000 years ago.
6) Now, an interesting research in 2013 by the University of Oxford. It says that, although neandertals’ brains were similar in size to their contemporary modern humans, their brain structure was different: larger areas of the neandertal brain (compared to the modern human brain) were given over to vision and movement, and this left less room for the higher level thinking required to form large social groups. It would seem that the neandertals thought in a different way to us despite having a similar sized brain and maybe their ‘symbolic thinking’ went in a different direction to ours, one that left no visible signs.
7) Finally, an engraving found with geometric pattern at Gorham’s cave in Gibraltar in 2012, published in Sep 2014, may be the most compelling evidence yet for neandertal art so far.
At the time of the neandertals, modern humans were doing pretty much the same things: hunting, gathering, using similar tools, eating similar food. For some reason, our species survived to be able to do all those things and the neanderthals did not.
So, why did neandertals disappear? Was it a case of intellectual capacity? Was it just circumstances and luck? Was it a combination of violence, absorption and climate change? Actually, a little piece of neandertal still lives in our DNA… But this is a different story for another post.