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The Battle over Neanderthals

A reconstruction of a Neanderthal male from the Neanderthal Museum.

A reconstruction of a Neanderthal male from the Neanderthal Museum (via Wikipedia)

A NOVA documentary presented the hypothesis that Neanderthals knew how to fashion a tool, manufacture glue from birch bark, had language skills, and on top of it had ritual, art and symbolism. It turns out that this issue is not settled and there  is debate about the skill set of Neanderthals.

Where Zilhão sees a clear pattern, sceptics see uncertainties. Harold Dibble, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, is re-examining supposed Neanderthal burial sites. At one, the French cave of Roc de Marsal, he says that what seemed to be a deliberately excavated grave is actually a natural pit. At another, La Ferrassie, he sees evidence that sediments swept into the cave by water — not grieving kin — could have buried Neanderthal remains.

As for the ochre crayons, Dibble is dismissive. “You see some wear on a piece of ochre and soon you’ve got Neanderthal body painting,” he says. “What a lot of logical leaps.” He and others say that the pigment has many possible uses: as an insect repellent, a preservative for food or animal skins, an ingredient in adhesives. Even Wil Roebroeks of the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, who found evidence for ochre use as early as 250,000 years ago at a Dutch Neanderthal site7, says that Zilhão “jumps too fast from the presence of ochre to body decoration”.

Ask Dibble, Hublin and other sceptics what would persuade them that Neanderthals had minds like ours, and their answer is simple: a pattern of art or other sophisticated symbolic expression from a time when no modern humans could possibly have been around. “But I don’t think it exists,” says Hublin. [Neanderthal culture: Old masters]

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More on the Venus Figurines

An exhibition on Ice Age art is going on at the British Museum in London. An article about the event mentions the Venus figurines, which has been discussed on this blog before.

In the first room is a small gathering of little figurines (let’s not call them “Venuses”) – small, nuggety pieces three or four inches high, worked in the round and showing women’s bodies. Made of stone or bone or ivory, some are slender and depict young women in the early stages of pregnancy. Others show older women, weighted with huge, low-slung breasts, wide backsides, tapering legs. The heads are bent in a manner almost demure, or perhaps it’s the infolded attitude of pregnant women. Many actually do show women in the late stages of pregnancy, when one’s body is exaggerated and unrecognisable even to oneself. They are earthy, mute, potent things, and were made with deliberation. Some were apparently intended to be worn as pendants, upside down, so as to be viewed by the wearer. Senior curator and author Jill Cook believes these figures were most likely made for women by women. “The female figures probably had important occult, or shamanic functions influential on family life.” At least one was deliberately smashed and thrown away – a passionate act. Perhaps it failed in some talismanic duty. Whatever the uses of such sculptures, “by looking at its aesthetics, we are looking at the evolution of our minds”. Art is not a hobby; it makes us, and shapes us.[Ice age carvings: strange yet familiar]

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Decoding Neanderthals (NOVA)

As humans left Africa and reached Europe, they found another hominid species which had left Africa much earlier — 800,000 years back — and had colonized specific parts of Europe. For about 10,000 years, humans and the Neanderthals co-existed; the magnificent Chauvet caves were built during this period. Then they just disappeared from the face of earth. Thus a species, which had survived for so long battling against an unforgiving nature, simply vanished and the reason behind that remains a mystery. Was it because they were now battling for the same resources as humans and could not win? Or was it because Neanderthals, who lacked art, language and technology, were wiped out by a superior species?

The new NOVA documentary, based on evidence from archaeology and genetic studies, does an image makeover of Neanderthals based on evidence from archaeology and genetics.

  1. It turns out that they had skills to use a set of carefully designed strikes to convert a flint stone into a flake with sharp edges. This flake could then be used to cut meat or as a weapon when attached to a pole.
  2. For attaching the flake to a pole, they brewed their own glue from birch bark using a dry distillation process which involved controlled heating.
  3. They had some language skills which was used to convey the above technologies to their peers.
  4. They also interbred with humans; everyone except Africans has a percentage of Neanderthal gene in them. Italians have the most.
  5. They had ritual, art and symbolism. They may have attempted body painting and also used grave goods as part of a burial ritual.

Since the program covered a lot of aspects of Neanderthal life, it fast-forwarded through one of the interesting questions about why they perished. One theory was offered: they were bred out by humans through interaction and absorption. Though it led to their extinction, this interbreeding might have helped us by providing with immunity to pathogens.

The entire program is available online

Watch Decoding Neanderthals on PBS. See more from NOVA.

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