Language: a systematic means of communication. It may be the foremost feature when comparing Neanderthals to us, a factor which distinctly separates modern humans from animals.
The cranial capacity of a Neanderthal man (1520cm3) is larger than that of a modern human (1400cm3) and can give indication into speech ability of these species (Jurmain et al., 2000).
The brain that is reflected by the endocranial cast of La Chapelle skull resembles that of a modern man in an area that is essential for speech. This thereby suggests that the Neanderthal man had the neural development necessary for language (LeMay, 2005).
It is not just the neurological development that determines the ability of speech among a species. The skeletal evidence of Neanderthals can highlight many aspects of their culture, including the capability of modern speech. Reconstruction of the larynx in a Neanderthal is based on the placement of the hyoid bone of La Chapelle, which is too high (Falk, 2005). Furthermore, a well preserved hyoid bone in Israel also raises the question of Neanderthal language abilities as the anatomy of these vocal apparatus is modern (Fitch, 2000).
It can also be said that the lack of hollow spaces used for air sacs, present in primates, closely links Neanderthals with modern humans (Fitch, 2000). The question of whether Neanderthals had the capability of speech is a highly controversial topic, however it is indicative through the skeletal evidence both in the endocranial cavity and the vocal apparatus’ that Neanderthals were indeed capable of language, however whether this language was practised is under scrutiny.
Neanderthals have been concluded to be one of the first species to bury their dead (Trinkhaus & Shipman 1993). There are many sites which have now been discovered to represent the deliberate disposal of Neanderthal remains, therefore giving insight into the mortuary practices of these hominids (Harrold, 1980). Atapuerca in Spai, which is dated to 300ka, presents a site where at least 32 individuals comprising of an additional 700 fossilised elements were located in a deep shaft within the cave (Jurmain et al., 2000).
This implies that pre-Neanderthal hominids were handling their dead in special ways that had thought to occur at a much later date. Furthermore, the act of burying the dead was seen in Western European sites at a much earlier date, well before purposeful burials were dated in Africa and Asia (Jurmain et al., 2000). It is typically observed in the burials of Neanderthals that their bodies are in an intentionally flexed position, where the knees are drawn upwards towards the chest (Feder, 2006).
From these burials questions then arise such as, why put time and effort into digging a hole to place a body, when it could be unceremoniously dumped in the woods? Or does this flexed position mimic a foetus in a womb or portray the adoption of symbolising death as the ‘circle of life’? The study of these bones allow foundations to form that adapt modern day understandings of Neanderthal burials.
By studying the items placed within these burials our understanding of behavioural and cultural complexity can be shaped. In particular it is common to see the placement of grave goods within these burials, including an arrangement of flowers renowned at the Shanidar Neanderthal burials (Trinkhaus & Shipman 1993).
Soil analysis uncovered significant quantities of pollen congruent with the idea that this hominid was buried over a patch of at least eight different species of small brightly coloured wildflowers (Jolly & White, 1995). Other grave goods including animal bone, stone implements and ochre are found throughout other famous Neanderthal sites including La Chapelle, Kebara and Tabun (Trinkhaus & Shipman 1993).
It was also concluded that the comparison of Neanderthal burials at sites in Europe and the Near East show a difference in the number of grave goods that are found (Jolly & White, 1995). There is also disparity in the number of burials in males compared to females; and age barriers of 16-30 and 31-40, where burials are of greater abundance (Riel-Salvatore, 2001). These variations in sex and age burials may indicate the validity of social stratification, identifying significant ages and gender within between Neanderthal communities.
It is impossible to understand the true meaning of these findings symbolically, as we can not combine our own interpretation or cultural prejudice on what burials signify (Jolly & White, 1995). However hypotheses, supported by ethnographic analogy, can be formed unravelling the mental processes of our ancestors. (Harrold, 1980). Modern burials present similarities and therefore identify behavioural complexity in the forms of ritualistic and symbolic actions.
The Mousterian tool technology is closely associated with being assembled by Neanderthals and represents a more refined method in comparison to the previously utilised tool technologies (Feder, 2006). The Mousterian projectile weaponry was specialised to thrusting spears and javelins, some of which have been further equipped with stone points (O’Connell, 2006). Other forms of the Mousterian tool industry received highly specialised attention once the flake was separated from the core, requiring over 100 more blows to shape or sharpen the edges (Feder, 2006). These were utilised by Neanderthals during the processes of cutting, scraping, slicing, sawing and pounding.
There is also evidence of aesthetic sense in Neanderthal tools as many were adapted from uniquely conspicuous stones (Gurthie, 2005). It is also suggested by Gurthie that working within these highly adapted tool industries indicates refined manual skills, implying that there was a sizeable expenditure of energy exploited on producing these tool technologies. In addition, lithic data represents differences in mobility between Neanderthals and modern humans. Neanderthal activities and social relations are reflected in the abundance of these lithic fragments, where it was concluded that Neanderthals had a relatively low residential mobility (Adler et al. 2006).
Although it has been established that these species were equally adept in exploiting the same niches, the distribution of lithic fragments support the common ideology that Neanderthal communities habituate a highly specialised environment. This is due to the utilisation of consistent resources and the occupation of similar environments (Adler et al. 2006). The procurement of these tools shows congruencies with tool technologies that are evident in modern communities. Although the dispersion of tools in modern human deposits is significantly greater, it may be suggested that the small confined niches to which Neanderthals adapted were highly specialised and therefore was beneficial to the their community.
It is often said that society is judged by the level of compassion or how ill or less able individuals are cared for. In the wider community, Neanderthals are commonly associated with brutish, animalistic creatures. Contrary to belief there is evidence of Neanderthals portraying humanity, caring for the wounded or ill members of their community. This conclusion stems from the preservation of Neanderthals’ that have survived significant health issues prominent in their remains (Feder, 2006). Paleopathological analysis of Neanderthal skeleton provides information about the individual, in particular, diet and health (Dettwyler, 1991).
A number of Neanderthal bones have been found that show evidence of being significantly impaired and yet have continued to survive, none of which do this better Shanidar I. This specimen exhibits osteophytic lesions (abnormal bony outgrowth) on its vertebrae and appendicular skeleton which are independent of traumatic and degenerative joint disease lesions (Crubézy & Trinkaus 1992). Furthermore, from Crubézy and Trinkaus’s evaluation it has been concluded that this specimen reveals the oldest known diagnosis of hyperostotic disease; excessive bone growth. It is also accepted that this hominid suffered severe trauma on the left side of the skull, fracturing the eye socket, most probably causing blindness. In addition surviving through brutal injuries to the forearm resulted in amputation (Feder, 2006).
It is apparent that severe distress was endured during this hominid’s life, and remarkably, he survived. Another example of Neanderthal care is seen at the French rockshelter Bau de l’Aubesier, where the Neanderthal lower jaw that was uncovered reflected exceedingly poor health with serious reduction of dental function (Lebel & Trinkaus 2002).
There is wear on the exposed roots of the teeth indicating that this individual had this disease over a significant period of time. Furthermore, the survival of this hominid would have been highly improbable without the assistance and cooperation of others (Feder, 2006).
Through both of these findings it is evident that Neanderthal communities express a level of care during the healing process of members in their society. This can be linked to the behaviour in modern humans concluding that Neanderthals cared for the sick and the wounded, thus demonstrating the similarity that they have to us. The development of behavioural complexity and intricate judgment were once only thought to be characteristics of modern humans. Contradictory to popular belief, archaeological analysis of Neanderthals confirm the similarities they have to us. Skeletal remains show the constant stress that was placed upon Neanderthals, as poor nutrition or traumatic bone breakage was common. This emphasises their level of endurance and indicates the social complexity of their species, portraying high levels of care and attentiveness.
Neanderthals were anatomically adept, as they were the first hominids to exhibit various significant behaviours, including the intentional burying of their dead and the development of language. The image of Neanderthals is one which emphasises several major adaptive advances over their predecessors, including developments that allowed them to exploit previously unhabitable regions and the ability to construct social and organisational spheres. These highly recognised advances in the archaeological record are anything but the picture of inferiority. It can be argued that Neanderthals are one of the more distinctive, victorious and intriguing groups of hominids that ever enriched our history.
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Written by Ashleigh Murszewski
Header Image Credit : Hardscarf