Elderberries mammoths and spears

THE LIFE AND DEATH OF THE NEANDERTHALS

The wind sighs gently in the tops of the oaks. A small group of Neanderthals have come out to search for hazelnuts, wild plums, and elderberries in the light forest periphery. It is late afternoon, and children play around the glimmering fires, while the women prepare the meat for dinner and fetch water from a nearby stream. The grandparents, decrepit senior citizens at the age of 45, sharpen the spear points and check the tool inventory at the skinning place. A scene like one from a picture book about the Stone Age—is it reality or fiction?

As human beings, nothing moves us more than our own history. When did our forebears start to speak? Which humans invented music, and when, along with the first musical instruments? What sort of clothing did people wear in the ice age, and what jewelry did they add, to win the gods' favor and shield their sons from harm during the hunt? Paleoanthropology can only supply general answers to questions about the "software" in the life of our ancestors. Teeth show what food was available, while bones can give information, based on their wear level, about an individual's age, possible illnesses, and injuries. Laughter, care, and language, though, cannot be petrified. It is the small remains of tools, birch pitch, pollen, awls, and pieces ofjewelry that provide the material for archaeologists, the detectives among prehistory researchers, to describe the daily life of the ice age.

Daily life. What is it? There was no typical daily life or typical environment in the ice age, any more than there was a typical Neanderthal. Some Neanderthals lived on the Mediterranean, others in mountains, while still others spent their lives on plains. In the east they ate goats and sheep, while Neanderthal hunters in the middle west found only grazing bison and aurochs. As hunters and gatherers, the Neanderthals understood how to adjust to the environment, climate, animals, and plant world in which they found themselves. Within their choice of neighborhood they were highly mobile, using readily available resources and regularly moving around within a radius of about 100 kilometers. We know this at least from the raw materials that they used for tools such as blades and hand axes. From the finds accompanying Neanderthal bones it is possible to reconstruct the daily life of the first Europeans with a fair amount of detail. Through finds of further everyday utensils, such as the remains of jewelry, bones with holes bored in them, birch pitch (the stone-age glue), and color pigments from graves, kitchens, and work places, the sketch of a Neanderthal day laid out at the beginning of this chapter seems quite realistic. At the very least, the state of archaeological evidence speaks unequivocally for the Neanderthals' well-regulated daily life.

A glimpse into the first Europeans' living rooms is provided by 35,000-to 40,000-year-old Neanderthal homesites such as Arcy-sur-Cure in Burgundy or the Ukrainian Molodova site. These finds have made us revise the stereotype of the Neanderthal as a caveman: the experienced handworker used mammoth tusks and wood posts to erect a shelter for up to twenty people. Caves constitute only a small proportion of the sites they used. For the most part, when they revisited caves again and again, they only used the cave mouths. Caves offered uncomplicated protection from the weather: there was no wind, fire could be kindled easily, and prey could be stored in the cave's cool, dark interior. But unlike other cave dwellers, such as bear, hyena, or lion, the stone-age human also made use of the open land, where he built shelters. Bones, wood, and animal hides and furs helped him protect himself securely from the ice-age cold spells in such a construction. A c. 50,000-year-old post hole, apparently from a wooden tent post, was found in the French Combe-Grenal, attesting to the building of these shelters out in the open. In the grotto near Arcy-sur-Cure, a site where bone awls (probably used to work leather and furs) and jewelry bones were uncovered, excavators also found evidence of two circular dwellings with several hearths.

The dwelling sites of the Ukrainian Neanderthals from Molodova, also round, have, with their total area of 75 square meters, as much room as a modern three-room apartment. In the interior of the former shelter at Molodova, the excavators uncovered two hearths, along with flecks of red pigment, stone tools, and the remains ofhunted game. A mass of mammoth bones suggests that the bones of the ice-age elephant were a coveted material for Neanderthal home-building. Huts or sheds made out of massive mammoth bones are also known from Mezin and Mezhirich (Figure 15a). Open-land dwelling places like Molodova are very difficult to reconstruct for the most part, since bone remains, hearths, and tools were unprotected and destroyed by weather or wild animals after the humans had abandoned the place.

Neanderthal Bone Mass Neanderthal Bone Mass

Figure 15 (a) A Neanderthal dwelling might have looked like this modern reconstruction at Mezhirich in Ukraine. (b) No Neanderthal settlements on open ground, like this one built of mammoth bones and skulls, are known, but the people of Europe could only have borne the climate if they had lived in relatively protected places, such as in caves or under the overhang of cliffs (c and d). Figure 15(e) is a reconstruction of the original Neanderthal cave. It shows a section through the area as it was 150 years ago in comparison to what is there today. Most of the original cave was destroyed by mining works, but it was shown to have been in the cliff face, about 15 metres above today's surface, and about 40 metres south of the Dussel river. Some Anteneanderthals appear to have lived in circular camp sites. The stones discovered at the Ochtendung campsite in Germany suggest that the stones were used for tent-like structures erected on top (f).

Figure 15 (a) A Neanderthal dwelling might have looked like this modern reconstruction at Mezhirich in Ukraine. (b) No Neanderthal settlements on open ground, like this one built of mammoth bones and skulls, are known, but the people of Europe could only have borne the climate if they had lived in relatively protected places, such as in caves or under the overhang of cliffs (c and d). Figure 15(e) is a reconstruction of the original Neanderthal cave. It shows a section through the area as it was 150 years ago in comparison to what is there today. Most of the original cave was destroyed by mining works, but it was shown to have been in the cliff face, about 15 metres above today's surface, and about 40 metres south of the Dussel river. Some Anteneanderthals appear to have lived in circular camp sites. The stones discovered at the Ochtendung campsite in Germany suggest that the stones were used for tent-like structures erected on top (f).

Neanderthals Organized CavesNeanderthals Organized Caves

Microscopic analysis of tools and bone finds, however, establishes that Neanderthals did not just use their shelters as a place to sleep. The settlement places appear to suggest, besides the normal "living rooms," a carefully organized division of work places, including skinning places, slaughter places, and workshops. Even enclosed hearths, like that at Vilas Ruivas in Portugal, were part of the Neanderthals' residential inventory— evidence of early safety precautions at the stone-age workplace.

0 10 20 30 metres asl
Figure 15 Continued

It is hard to say how long a group of Neanderthals would have lived at a given place. It has been surmised that, on the one hand, they had special camps for brief occupation, such as for collecting specific natural produce, and, on the other hand, home camps where the group stayed for longer periods. It would be very difficult to establish whether this was a matter of a more "circulating mobility"—with regular return to a settlement place—or an outward radiation, in which a camp occupied relatively long term served as a base from which to visit satellite camps for hunting.

It is easier to come up with at least an approximate answer to the question of what a Neanderthal dwelling looked like. The German find site Rheindahlen, near Mönchengladbach, offers insights. This site dates to the intermediate ice age, as we can tell from maple, hornbeam, and oak charcoal. The remains of tools and woods reveal details about the production of wooden shafts. Wood was a quite typical work material in the stone age. Artifacts like the 400,000-year-old Schöningen spears (Figure 16) provide evidence that both the Neanderthals and Homo erectus were early masters of alternative tool techniques. Organic materials like wood, antler, or bone were used just as much as flint in the preparation of implements. Traces of wear on stone tools show unequivocally the use of wood for handles, containers, and scrapers. Pointed mammoth bones from the Neanderthal find site Salzgitter-Lebenstedt and the evidence of45,000-year-old birch pitch (Figure 16), a natural glue that probably connected wood and stone and could only be acquired through a highly complex distillation technique, leave no room for doubt: the Neanderthal did not just have stone implements in his tool kit. This assumption was held for a long time, because stone artifacts survive better than those made from soft materials like wood, but has now been laid to rest.

Because the bulk of our finds is made up of the first Europeans' stone tool repertoire, an especially large amount is known about the techniques used for preparing blades, hand axes, or simple striking stones. To begin, only stones were used that could be split easily and that were sharp along the break, but would not shatter with resistance. The perfect materials for this undertaking were quarzite, volcanic glasses like obsidian and andesite, or simply flint. The stones were worked with a round striking rock made of a harder stone: a blow of the hammer stone on the edge of the raw material would split off stone flakes, in various shapes and sizes, from the stone core. Pieces struck from the stone core that were at least twice as long as they were broad found further use as blades. The worked stone core itself could be used, depending on the tool technique, as hand axe, scraper, or point. Thinner flakes for knives were prepared using a light percussive technique, using a wood or antler hammer, while hand axes, which were worked exclusively from stone cores, were produced using a harder

Sch Ningen Spears

Figure 16 The spears of Schoningen and the birch pitch of Konigsaue, which was used to glue together wood and stone, are impressive witnesses to the tool culture of the first Europeans. Birch pitch is produced by making birch bark expand in a closed container heated to a temperature of 300° C. The Schoningen spears, 400,000 years old, are the oldest spears that have been discovered anywhere in the world.

Figure 16 The spears of Schoningen and the birch pitch of Konigsaue, which was used to glue together wood and stone, are impressive witnesses to the tool culture of the first Europeans. Birch pitch is produced by making birch bark expand in a closed container heated to a temperature of 300° C. The Schoningen spears, 400,000 years old, are the oldest spears that have been discovered anywhere in the world.

percussive technique. The word "produce" presumes that a certain mass of tools was prepared with a technique that was employed repeatedly without particular regional differentiation.

The stone-working style typical for Neanderthals is called Levallois technique after a French find site. Classic Levallois tools were always prepared first on the underside. Then in the second stage of work the underside could be used as a striking platform for working the top and the cuttings were made from this upper surface and then worked further. To get a perfect flake from the now convex stone core, it is necessary to strike exactly the right place. The experienced handworker strikes precisely on this point repeatedly until the stone releases the flake. It does not require a profound understanding of tool techniques to recognize that the Levallois technique was a very carefully thought out style ofproduction that required not only skill but also a high level of abstract thinking from the producer. The fine finishing of Mousterian implements like scrapers and points, accomplished by means of carefully aimed retouching using softer wood or antler tools, speaks eloquently of the maker's aptitude and the user's requirements. Nonetheless, Neanderthal hunters and tool-makers must not have valued their stone implements all that highly. When the group moved on, they left their tools behind for the most part and just made them again at the new settlement. Resin, grasses, and bark for attaching spear points were available everywhere; encampments with flint and quarzite were as well known to the Neanderthal handworker as the location of the nearest hardware store is to us.

The Neanderthal's tool kit was large and specialized—so much so that for a long time scholars of prehistory wanted to classify various parts of the copious inventory as belonging to different cultures. It is unclear whether specific traditions influenced tool production or if the sort of tool production simply depended on the environment of a given group. Therefore, today one speaks rather of "type groups," like the Mousterian, the Micoquian, or the Acheulean, to pull together a number of geographically and chronologically similar tool finds. Find locations like Lehringen in Lower Saxony, where a 120,000-year-old wooden hunting lance made of yew, 2.38 meters long, and some stone flakes were found, lead to the conclusion that tools were made more complexly or simply depending on length of residence and the purpose to which they were put. For tools were not just employed for hunting, but also for skinning or butchering of animals, while Neanderthals used finer tools like awls for detailed work such as sewing clothes.

But even the best tool is worthless when the user doesn't know how to use it. The hunt for large game like mammoths called not just for an arsenal of weapons such as throwing spears and thrusting lances, but also required the hunters' ability to plan, to think abstractly, and to strategize. The already-mentioned spears from Schöningen (Figure 16), with their considerable length of 2.5 meters, were used by people who hunted wild horses, animals known for their speed and endurance—no easy prey. The massive mammoths and bison were not an easy quarry either, and yet Neanderthals hunted them—a challenge that, according to the estimates of archaeologists like Bärbel Auffermann and Jörg Orschiedt, could only have been accomplished by a coordinated hunting team consisting of at least twenty individuals.

Finds from hunting sites like Mauran or La Borde in France, Il'skaja in the northern Caucasus, and Wallertheim in the Rhineland show that the Neanderthals were specialized hunters who repeatedly waylaid and brought down bison or mammoths at the same spots, when they were on their way to their winter pasturage. In Salzgitter-Lebenstedt, the bone fragments of 86 hunted reindeer were found along with thousands of stone tools, conclusive evidence of the Neanderthals' outstanding hunting abilities. After butchering the animals, they transported the best cuts to camp, and split long bones open to get at the nutritious marrow. As already mentioned, meat was the Neanderthals' main source of protein. Measurements of the collagen isotopes in Neanderthal bones indicate a diet that consisted predominantly of the meat of large mammals such as reindeer, bison, or bear. It is unclear how large a role fish and shellfish played in the Neanderthals' daily diet, since the data was collected from inland Neanderthal find sites. Still, the remains of mussels in caves make it probable that Neanderthals also ate both fresh- and salt-water animals.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Responses

  • Amanda
    What are the parts of the mammoth the neanderthals used?
    8 years ago

Post a comment