Neanderthals could kill hundreds of meaty bison in a flash. Wikimedia Commons
Neanderthals were not inferior to humans, according to a new study that concludes their "demise" was the result of interbreeding with us and their subsequent assimilation into what is now the modern human gene pool.
The study, published in the latest issue of PLoS ONE, counters prior views that humans were superior to Neanderthals in key ways, including their ability to hunt, communicate, innovate and adapt to different environments. The study is co-authored by Paola Villa of the University of Colorado at Boulder and archaeologist Wil Roebroeks of Leiden University.
Evidence, for example, suggests that Neanderthals herded hundreds of bison to their death by steering them into sinkholes. Fossilized remains of 18 mammoths and five woolly rhinoceroses also indicate that Neanderthals directed these large, meaty species over a deep ravine, where the animals perished and could then easily become dinner.
Neanderthals controlled fire for warmth and cooking.Wikimedia Commons
Neanderthals were able to survive in cold parts of Europe and Asia due, in part, to their controlled usage of fire. Evidence for controlled fires in these regions goes back well over 300,000 years to Homo erectus, a likely ancestor of Neanderthals. This occurred long before Homo sapiens settled in Europe and Asia.
According to the Stiftung Neanderthal Museum, Neanderthals used fire for cooking, and even put meats in basic smokers, likely to preserve them and, as for today, to impart a desirable smoky taste.
Neanderthals sported waterproof leather clothing.Hector Garcia, Flickr
Bone tools used to craft weatherproof leather clothing have been attributed to Neanderthals. A study published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences described the tools. There is no evidence yet that Neanderthals sewed, but the likelihood that they were working leather indicates their clothing was sophisticated -- and maybe stylish too -- for the time.
Neanderthals enjoyed a diverse diet consisting of plenty of veggies, fruits, nuts and other edibles, in addition to meat.Wikimedia Commons
Because of their hunting prowess, Neanderthals have a reputation for only eating meat. Villa and Roebroeks, however, argue that Neanderthals had a diverse diet. Microfossils found in Neanderthal teeth and food remains left behind at cooking sites indicate that Neanderthals ate wild peas, acorns, pistachios, grass seeds, wild olives, pine nuts, date palms and other foods, depending on what was locally available.
Neanderthals likely were artistic. PNAS
Neanderthal sites have yielded body ornaments, the authors of the new paper mention. The ornaments primarily consisted of feathers, painted shells and decorative bone objects with holes, allowing the objects to be worn as a necklace or in some other way. Certain cave art from Europe, such as in El Castillo cave in Spain, also coincides with Neanderthal presence in the area.
This engraved ochre attributed to modern humans, but Neanderthals used this material too.Wikimedia Commons
Ochre, a natural pigment, and manganese, also used as a coloring agent, have been found at sites inhabited by Neanderthals. The pigments were probably used for body painting, according to the researchers. This happened before the arrival of anatomically modern humans (aka Homo sapiens) in western Eurasia.
Painting, and other forms of art, demonstrate that Neanderthals had forms of symbolism once attributed only to our species. This means that they could symbolically represent objects and themselves. Language taps into the skill, so Neanderthals might have had language too. Their anatomy, such as a highly developed inner ear, suggests that Neanderthals at least had some form of spoken language.
Neanderthals cared for elderly and infirm individuals. Kennis&Kennis/Madrid Scientific Films
Care and compassion appear to have existed in the Neanderthals' world, and even in that of their ancestors. For example, consider a 500,000-year-old pelvis nicknamed "Elvis" by researcher Alejandro Bonmati and his teams at Complutense University of Madrid and the Carlos III Institute of Health.
"He possibly used a cane, just as a modern elderly person does," Bonmati told Discovery News. "This individual may not have been an active hunter and was impaired to carry heavy loads, thus an important source of his food would depend on other members of the group, which would mean sharing."
Neanderthals held rituals and buried their dead. Randii Oliver, Wikimedia Commons
Neanderthals may have conducted burials and possessed symbolic thought before modern humans had these abilities. A probable 50,000-year-old Neanderthal burial ground that includes the remains of at least three individuals was unearthed in Spain, according to a paper in the journal Quaternary International.
Unburnt bones of two articulated panther paws were found at the site, called Sima de las Palomas. Lead author Michael Walker, a professor in the Department of Zoology and Physical Anthropology at the University of Murcia, believe the saved paws might have held ritual significance.
The Neanderthal tool kit was extensive and got the job done.Wikimedia Commons
Neanderthals made weapons and tools out of materials such as wood, ivory, bone and stone. A likely Neanderthal toolkit found in the Ural Mountains of Russia and dating to 33,000 years ago may even mark the last refuge of distinct Neanderthal culture before these prehistoric humans were assimilated into our species, Jan Mangerud of the University of Bergen and the Bjerknes Center for Climate Research told Discovery News.
A Neanderthal recreation showing off his muscle.Wikimedia Commons
The popular notion that Neanderthals were not very skilled or intelligent holds no basis. "The evidence for cognitive inferiority is simply not there," Villa said, adding that "the conventional view of Neanderthals is not true." They were very big brained, and most appear to have been muscular too.
If Neanderthals were so great, why weren't Homo sapiens absorbed into their gene pool instead of the other way around? Villa and Roebroeks point out that the Neanderthal genome has low genetic diversity, suggesting that Neanderthals lived in small groups. They evolved in environments that often had limited resources and harsh winters, both of which could have contributed to the evolution of small and fragmented Neanderthal groups.
When large numbers of Homo sapiens that evolved under likely warmer and more verdant conditions arrived, Neanderthals, according to the researchers, were eventually swamped and assimilated by the increasing number of modern immigrants. Anthropologist Ludovic Slimac of the University of Toulouse le Mirail likens this to what happened to earlier populations from the Americas.
Explaining the comparison, Slimac told Discovery News, "In a bit more than 500 years, what will remain of the traditional native societies in America? Just imagine what will remain of these impressive cultures, or their territories, during the next millennium."