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The Neandertals

Staring into the gloom, I imagine the cave’s ancient inhabitants,
wrapped in bear skins, huddled near a fire. The haunches of a
reindeer roast in the fire. A mother nurses her infant. Children
playfully throw pieces of bone into the flames. An old woman tends
the wounds of a hunter with an herbal ointment. The strong smells
of smoke, unwashed bodies, and rotting carcasses thicken the air.

Until recently, nobody would have assumed that the above passage (Rick
Gore, pp.6) was about how the Neandertals lived. However, recent studies have
shown that Neandertals are smarter than we first thought.

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The geography of the Neandertals domain was quite odd. 230,000 years
ago Europe was filled with caves, marshes, and grasslands. It was a very harsh
and cold wilderness. The Neandertals were in existence right in the middle of
the Ice Age, and although occasional warm periods would create subtropical
conditions as far north as England for thousands of years, the glaciers would
always return and the Neandertals would always be forced south again. The
Neandertals could be found as far north as England and as far south as Spain,
from Gibralter to Uzbekistan.

Neandertal bones have been found in the Neander Valley and Dusseldorf
Germany, in Altamura, Italy and Vindija, Croatia. These are major sites for the
European caves the Neandertals lived in. Although the Neandertals went to the
southern tip of Italy, they never crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Africa. They
migrated from central Europe to central Asia to the Middle East and always came
back. Their main mode of moving around was on their feet, and they usually
travelled in bands of no more than 30 people.

The Neandertals had broad noses, and scientists think this was to warm
the cold air. They also had thick browridges, receding chins, high foreheads,
and their skulls sloped back over their brains. They learned to hunt in groups
in order to kill the bigger game. The Neandertals lived with modern humans for
10,000 years, but they didn’t change, and eventually it is believed the modern
humans conquered them with their more advanced technology.

Although not much is known about the Neandertal’s culture,
anthropologists have some ideas of how they lived their life.

It is believed by many that the Neandertals practiced cannibalism for a
death ritual. There is evidence of this on the skulls and big bones of
Neandertals. There are cut marks and some bones have been broken open and are
without marrow. Why would they do this? Maybe they liked the way their
neighbors tasted, or maybe it was a ritual for a religion of theirs. There is
other evidence they have a religion. One archaeologist found a carved and
polished ivory tooth, and since it looked to have no purpose as a tool, it is
most probably a spiritual object. The bodies of people were found in a cave
with flowers around them. This also suggests some sort of religion.

Scientists had always thought that the technology of the Neandertals was
“primitive”. However, they have changed their minds. “You need a lot of brains
for flint knapping,” Jacques Pelegrin of the French Center for Archaeological
Research. Recent excavations show that Neandertal tools required a high level
of craftsmanship and mental ability. During most of their existence,
Neandertals have what is called Mousterian technology- flaked tools (i.e.

scrapers and points) and this remained unchanged for 100,000 years. During the
last few thousand years of their lives, they developed what is called
Chatelperronian technology- hafted points and more complex.

It was also thought that the Neandertals couldn’t speak. One theory is
that they communicated through mental telepathy, due to the large brains. Now
though, anthropologists believe that the Neandertals spoke at least a
rudimentary language. A hyoid bone(the voice box hangs from it in the back of
the throat) was found in a body recently. “They may not have had a language as
complex as ours…. but at least they could talk to each other,” said
Christopher Stringer, a paleoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in

The Neandertals were plagued by injuries and disease, but there is
evidence that they were cared for by the group. They ate cave bears and aurochs
and other big game, slicing off the skin with sharp flints. The skins they
cured and wore draped over their bodies, and they made buildings resembling
teepees out of wood or mammoth bones and the hides of some animals.

The Neandertals had a compassionate side, something not expected from
their big and squat appearance. They cared for their sick and injured, and they
had families, as a man, two women, and an infant were found buried together with
personal decorations on them and pollen from wildflowers. Some think that
bodies were also disposed of in large caves for housecleaning.

Still, one of the biggest questions of Neandertals today is what
happened to them? Nobody really knows. There are many theories, however.

The Neandertals inhabited Europe from about 230,000 to 30,000 years ago.

About 40,000 years ago the modern humans arrived. They lived peacefully side by
side for 10,000 years and then all record of Neandertal life ends. It is
thought that the modern humans conquered and destroyed the Neandertals with
their advanced technology. Or maybe the Neandertals interbred with the modern
humans and got slowly replaced, unable to compete. It is also possible that a
natural disaster(like the Ice Age) caught them in the north and they were unable
to leave, as they were surrounded by modern humans.

It is very surprising that there is no record of violence between the
Neandertals and the modern humans. “I see confrontation. People who grow up in
the Middle East understand that. We don’t like each other. We rarely
intermarry, and we kill each other whenever we can. I don’t think you can
prevent competition among societies,” said Ofer Bar-Yosef. If that is so, then
maybe the modern humans DID overthrow the Neandertals.

All anthropologist know is that 35,000 years ago the Neandertals
migrated one last time to the caves on the southern tip of Spain, and yet they
never once tried to get over to Africa. Why not?
I see them again, chipping at flints and gazing down at herds of
elk and aurochs that grazed the rich grasslands below. Now,
where their prey once wandered, the ships of many nations anchor.

Beyond them, Africa looms through the haze, filling me with
wanderlust and questions.(Rick Grey, pp. 35)
Category: Social Issues


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