Neanderthal Society

Social organization is central to the adaptive strategies of all animal communities. The size and structure of local groups, the particular roles and relationships of individuals within these groups, the existence of any systematic alliances between groups and their integration into larger, regional populations are all in one way or another critical to the survival prospects of communities under varying ecological and demographic conditions. All of these factors impinge on the ability of groups to secure a reliable and predictable food supply, their capacity to protect themselves from attacks by predators or members of their own species, and their ability to form viable, stable breeding populations in the short and long term. It is now generally recognized that understanding the nature and structure of social organization is fundamental not only to studies of human and primate communities, but to those of all animal populations (e.g. Hinde 1983; Smuts et al. 1987; Standen & Foley 1989).

The central issue here is how the social structure and organization of Neanderthal communities may have differed from that of behaviourally and biologically modern populations. Was it essentially the same as in modern communities or was there, as White and others have argued, a fundamental 'restructuring in social relationships' coinciding with the transition from the Middle to the Upper Palaeolithic (White 1982; see also Binford 1992; Soffer 1994)?

What we mean by 'modern' patterns of social organization has been discussed fully in a recent article by Lars Rodseth and others in Current Anthropology ('The human community as a primate society': 1992). Rodseth et al. provide a systematic comparison of various aspects of social organization across a broad range of modern (principally hunter-gatherer) human communities, set against those of other primate species. What emerges is that while the groups of non-human primates display a great variety of social structures, from the solitary, monogamous families of Asian gibbons to the male-dominated harem groups of mountain gorillas (Smuts et al. 1987), there are a number of specific patterns which are characteristic of the great majority of present-day human communities but which occur much less commonly, if at all, in groups of non-human primates. These include the strong tendency to form permanent relationships between particular pairs of males and females throughout life; the tendency for several of these closely bonded family units to form relatively stable interacting and residential groupings over substantial periods of time; the almost universal tendency in these contexts for food to be shared extensively between members of the two sexes, together with the dependent children; the equally universal tendency for these multi-family groups to practise strict rules of exogamy, most commonly involving the movement of females away from parental groups; and the establishment of at least temporary 'home bases', which usually provide the focus for many different activities (sleeping, eating, socializing, food preparation, craftwork etc.) over periods of at least several days, if not much longer. A further and particularly diagnostic feature of modern human communities is their tendency to maintain long-term social relationships between individuals who are related by birth, but who habitually reside in separate social groups, sometimes at great distances from their original birthplace (Rodseth et al. 1992: 237-40). It is this feature, described by Foley & Lee (1989) as 'combined kinship and lineage', which provides one of the most striking contrasts between modern human communities and all the recorded groups of non-human primates. Other factors, such as the importance and rigidity of various social or economic roles ascribed to individual members, the division of economic or other activities between the sexes, and the degree of territoriality maintained between adjacent groups, all vary fairly widely in both human and primate communities and therefore cannot be used to provide any firm criteria for the definition of characteristically human as opposed to primate behaviour. Most of these features are familiar components of the classic 'home-base' model of distinctively human behaviour which has been discussed in the anthropological and archaeological literature since the 1960s (e.g. Isaac 1969, 1978, 1984; Binford 1984, 1985). What is new about Rodseth et al/s analysis is that it puts these specific features of characteristically 'human' or 'modern' behaviour firmly within the framework of broader comparative studies of human and other primate societies.

The value of Rodseth et al/s study therefore is that it provides a systematic yardstick for identifying what we mean by modern social organization. There seems to be widespread agreement among archaeologists and anthropologists that the main features identi fied in Rodseth's study would be equally valid for most culturally Upper Palaeolithic communities throughout Eurasia, extending back at least to the earlier stages of the Aur-ignacian (White 1982). The critical question is how the behaviour and organization of the preceding Middle Palaeolithic and Neanderthal communities matches this model. Since there are currently very differing viewpoints on this issue (compare for example White 1982 and associated comments; Binford 1984, 1985,1992; Soffer 1994; Clark & Lindly 1989), the various lines of evidence which have been advanced require careful consideration.

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  • Awate
    What was neanderthal societies?
    9 years ago

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