‘Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art’

by Dr Rebecca Wragg Sykes.

This lecture takes its title from Dr Rebecca Wragg Sykes’ first book, a critically acclaimed best seller. Rebecca started her talk by reminding us of the very recent news of Neanderthals ‘winning’ a Nobel prize, thanks to Svante Pääbo’s work on ancient DNA. Rebecca briefly described the early history of the discovery of Neanderthals, who got their name from bones found in the Neander Valley, Germany, in 1856. However, Neanderthal bones had been found earlier, elsewhere in Europe, but not identified.

Fast forwarding to 2022, Rebecca went on to explain how, with modern technology such as ancient DNA analysis, Neanderthals fitted into the human evolutionary tree. Thus, Homo sapiens, Neanderthals and Denisovans all had a common root in Early Homospecies, about 3-2 million years ago, with the split into the three separate groups occurring around 765-550 thousand years ago. We learned how similar Neanderthals were to modern humans, being fully upright, a little shorter, but with flared ribs and thicker bones giving them a strong, stocky build, perfect for their hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

During the 400,000 years Neanderthals existed in Eurasia, they lived through four different warm periods, not just the Ice Ages with which many people associate them. Rebecca pointed out that Neanderthals had lived during a time when the earth was hotter by 1-2 degrees than it is today. Neanderthals had simply moved away from areas where they could not hunt, and had lived wherever there was food; mountains, coasts, plains and woodlands.

Moving on to archaeology, Rebecca showed a photograph of a 1908 excavation that looked like a bomb site, and described today’s very careful archaeological analysis. Looking at Neanderthal hearth sites in Spain, at El Salt and Abric Romani, we saw how the different layers of the excavated site were fitted together, showing how hearths were used and re-used, often over many years, and by many generations of Neanderthals. Stone tools and chips, burnt wood, burnt bones and other remains were analysed, dating the different layers, and demonstrating how Neanderthals had lived at these sites.

Neanderthal teeth have been analysed and reveal much about their lives, including their rapid development when compared to modern humans. Tooth wear suggests that teeth were used as a third hand, and scratches from stone tools, held by right- or left-handed Neanderthals, show how tough food was cut when held by the teeth. Meat and fibrous plant food left identifiable scratches on teeth. A splinter of wood was found in tooth calculus (hardened plaque), suggesting that Neanderthals cleaned their teeth with wooden tooth picks, as do chimpanzees today. Starch found in calculus has been analysed to show the vast range of plants, such as water lily roots and wild grasses, eaten by Neanderthals. 

Neanderthals also ate a wide range of animals; mammoths, deer, horses and boars, and smaller animals such as rabbits, beavers and even carnivores. The hearths at Abric Romaní gave evidence of seasonal hunting; horses in summer, red deer in autumn, with the Neanderthals returning to the site at different times of the year. Primary butchery sites gave evidence of the careful selection of the ‘best’ parts of the animal; fat, large marrow bones, etc., which were removed and carried back to the rest of the group. Meat may have been eaten raw, but there was definitely some cooking, with dripped fat residues found in hearths.

Birds were eaten, and Rebecca described the finding of a carefully butchered swift, with the tiny bird possibly having been used to teach youngsters how to catch prey and then butcher it. Another unusual find was the remains of a wild cat, which had been butchered and its bones burnt, indicating that it had been eaten. The lack of toe bones with the remains suggested that the fur skin of the wild cat had been removed. Neanderthals ate seafood, with evidence showing they ate cooked mussels, knowing that the shells opened when heated. 

Neanderthals were extremely efficient stone tool makers. They made specific flake tools for every purpose; cutting, chopping, scraping hides, boring holes, etc. Large Levallois and Quina flake tools were particularly good for re-sharpening or re-purposing. 

The process of re-fitting flakes back onto the core was described, with the finding of all the different pieces showing first where the tools were made; usually near hearth sites. Then, how the tools were used and moved around the environment with time, as well as where and when they were re-purposed. For example, blades blunted to re-use as scrapers were found at skin processing sites, and re-sharpened cutting blades were found at primary butchery sites. Neanderthals were capable of making composite tools. They made an ochre-coloured birch resin adhesive, blobs of which have been found stuck onto stone points, with their probable wooden shafts or handles long decayed. 

We looked at possible Neanderthal art. We saw dark green cobbles used for tool-making that had been chosen by Neanderthals over stones of other colours. Neanderthals appear to have liked rich colours; tiny fossil shells have been found with red pigment on them. Elsewhere, larger shells have been found coloured with two different pigments and with artificially enlarged holes, possibly for hanging. We looked at spaced vertical scratches on a bone, and geometrical scratches on the floor of a cave on Gibraltar, which may or may not have been ‘art’.

Deep in Bruniquel Cave, France, about 174,000 years ago, when only Neanderthals inhabited the area, stalactites and stalagmites were smashed and built into circular constructions, with traces of fire also found. From this enigmatic site, we went on to look at mortuary practices of the Neanderthals, who intentionally buried their dead. Skull analysis shows that Neanderthals sometimes removed thick bone pieces; useful for retouching flakes, but also small bone pieces with no obvious practical use.

Rebecca described the end of the Neanderthals about 40,000 years ago. Studies of ancient DNA show that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens were interbreeding at this time. On a map of the world, we saw Homo sapiens dispersal routes, both early (120-60ka), and later (60-30ka), and also where the genetic admixtures had occurred in Eurasia. In the light of Neanderthal DNA continuing to exist in modern humans, the rethinking of ‘extinction’ was suggested.

In the Q&A session, Rebecca explained that Neanderthals had continued to evolve during their 400,000 years on earth, with noticeable body changes between Mediterranean and Northern European Neanderthals. She also told us that childbirth would have been somewhat easier for Neanderthals, with the birth canal not so much twisted as now, but that babies would still have been a tight fit, and help with childbirth needed.

Report by Joan Burrow-Newton


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