The first nonhuman hominin fossils known to science were Neanderthals (pronounced Nee-an-der-talls) or Homo neanderthalensis. They were a stocky, muscular, barrel-chested species known from sites in Europe, the Middle East, and Eurasia. The name Neanderthal comes from the location of one of the earliest discoveries of the species, in the Neander Valley, Germany, in 1856. Based on misinterpretations of the anatomy and the desire to elevate humans from our evolutionary cousins, Neanderthals were originally regarded as ape-like savages with little intellect and a stooping, knuckle-dragging walk. The stereotypes have been carried over today, despite all of the modern evidence to the contrary.
Neanderthals existed from about 350 to 28 Kya and many of the sites discussed under the Archaics are also considered Neanderthal sites. Toward the end of their existence Neanderthals became increasingly distinct in appearance from modern humans, increasingly similar in culture to modern humans (this point is arguable), and then they disappeared. The "classic" Neanderthals, the most anatomically distinct and stereotypical specimens, are found in Europe. The skull has unmistakably large, rounded, m-shaped browridges that loom over a large nose opening. The middle of the face projects at the nose and appears pulled-out compared to the rest of the face, which appears to sweep back from the nose at the cheekbones (Figure 3.7). The jaw has no bony projection for a chin like humans and also has an extra space called a retromolar gap behind the third molars. The molars are called
"taurodont" because of their sturdy and puffed-up, or "bull-like," appearance. The low, flat frontal bone, long braincase, and bulging occipital bun (i.e., bump) holds the largest brain, on average—for all hominins including humans—at 1300-1600 cc.
The postcranial skeleton of Neanderthals is also unmistakable. The extremely robust bones indicate that Neanderthals were strong, muscular, and athletic. The long bones of Neanderthals are thick and curved because of the great muscular forces placed on them. Originally, these curved bones were blamed on rickets, a disease associated with poor nutrition.
Neanderthal skeletons often show evidence of trauma. Eric Trinkaus likened their particular pattern of injuries to the types of broken and healed bones experienced by American rodeo riders. Neanderthals were not necessarily riding wild animals, but they were probably coming into dangerously close contact with them. Studies of the arm bones by Steven Churchill even suggest that they preferred to thrust spears into their prey rather than throw them, which lends support to the interpretation of their dangerous hunting techniques. Neanderthal teeth worked just as hard as their bodies. Often their incisors are worn down and even show stone tool cut-marks across them as if Neanderthals used their jaws as a vice to prepare food or animal hides.
In spite of their rough lifestyles, Neanderthals had advancements in cultural materials that approached modern humans. One of the most recent (or last) Neanderthal sites at Grotte du Renne in France dated to 34 Kya has preserved perforated and grooved teeth, ivory, and bone beads that were probably used for personal adornment. If it is traditionally thought that only modern humans behaved like this, should it be assumed that Neanderthals were trading or interacting with modern humans? It is debated whether or not Neanderthals and modern humans evolved this behavior independently or if they ever interacted.
A circle of mammoth bones with hearths, tools, and animal bones at a site in the Ukraine show that Neanderthals made camps like modern humans. Therefore, the strictly "caveman" image of Neanderthals could be the result of the preservation bias afforded by caves. There are no needles yet associated with Neanderthals so it is possible they did not fashion clothing. However, that does not preclude the probability that they wore animal pelts since they lived in cold climates.
It is not known why Neanderthals disappeared around 28 Kya. Perhaps they became too well adapted to the cold so that they could no longer survive between Ice Ages. Perhaps modern humans were better at filling
Table 3.2 Major Stone Tool Types and Their Time Periods in the Paleolithic, or Old Stone Age
Oldowan Lower Paleolithic 2.5 Mya-300 Kya
Modern human toolkit Upper Paleolithic 40-10 Kya a similar niche and out-competed them. Or, perhaps modern humans swamped the Neanderthal gene pool by interbreeding with them.
A new hypothesis by Steven Kuhn and Mary Stiner suggests that the demise of Neanderthals could be blamed on their method of hunting. Or alternatively, the success ofmodern humans could be due, in part, to their implementation of a division of labor between the sexes. Evidence suggests that entire Neanderthal populations were involved in hunting big game. This is quite the opposite of early modern humans who— modeled after living hunter-gatherer or foraging societies like the San people of the Kalahari Desert of southern Africa—had the men hunt large game while the women gathered small game and plants. This division of labor ensures a continuous and diverse food supply since the obtainment of meat from large animals can be patchy and unpredictable. Neanderthals were hunting perilously with spears (no bows and arrows or even spear-throwers yet) and they were coming in close contact with their prey. It is possible that women and children were participating. There are no bone needles, very few small animal remains, and no grinding stones for preparing plant foods at Neanderthal sites. These are the artifacts associated with the female roles at home bases in human societies and would be left behind if women and children were staying back from the hunts. The Neanderthal strategy may have been aimed at nutritiously rich protein sources, but it could have been too specialized and could have also endangered their reproductive core to the point of species demise.
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