Evolving ideas

For too long they have been seen as a failed test version of humanity but Rebecca Wragg Sykes tells us why we were wrong about the Neanderthals

Hero image

Autumn, 55,000 years ago. A group of Neanderthals is preparing to leave their home, a rockshelter in north-east Spain. They were here in spring, arriving just as the horse herds were coming to birth their foals. Now, in autumn, fewer of them have come and it is the shadowy deer they seek, umber pelts hiding them amongst the orange and brown foliage

During the chilly nights, everyone sleeps bundled together, lying on hide mats, wrapped in soft furs. Backs against the rockshelter wall help them feel safe – plenty of big predators roam these hills – while stomachs are warmed by smouldering night hearths in front.

Neanderthals were still here, inside us – in the blood beating in billions of living hearts

Farther out, towards where the dawn mist shrouds the view, around larger fires lies the detritus of the “bone factories”. Fragments of smashed deer legs and cracked-open skulls are pulverised to nearly-unidentifiable splinters, covered in fat drippings. Rubbish dumps containing bigger bone shards and debris from stone tool knapping are towards each side of the rockshelter, and will be picked over after the people have moved onwards. But for now, everyone sleeps, bellies full, and only faint smoke trails meander upwards from the ends of branches sticking out of hearths.

The Neanderthals living at this place – known today as Abric Romaní – would soon move onwards, but we know such astonishing details about their lives thanks to two things. First, this was a very special place geologically. Overhanging the rockshelter today is a large curtain of travertine, formed like stalagmites by carbonate-laden waters slowly trickling. The same waters seeped up and flowed across the surface of the rockshelter many tens of millennia ago, making it too soggy for the Neanderthals to live there, but preserving the floors just as they had left them.

Dark charcoal circles of hearths are haloed by tens of thousands of fragments from their everyday lives: limestone flakes, butchery and cooking waste, and even more precious things. The travertine deposits also sealed in wooden objects, usually invisible archaeologically. Not only can we see the ghostly, sooty outlines of fuel for hearths, but occasionally even carved artefacts: a platter-like object in one layer, and in another, something looking very much like a cleaver, complete with handle. And the layers are crucial, because this travertine entombing happened at least 27 times at Abric Romaní. Across 12 layers (so far), over 20,000 years of Neanderthal life is preserved, albeit in phases lasting perhaps just a few centuries, followed by longer wet periods of a millennia or more.

The other reason why we can paint such an intimate, specific picture of life here is the archaeology: not the stuff, but the methods with which researchers today analyse it. Abric Romaní is a flagship site with its unique preservation, but the work done here – slow, patient excavation, meticulous study afterwards – is echoed across hundreds of other Neanderthal sites. 21st century researchers have utterly transformed what we know, and work from the cellular level, examining ancient bodies, right up to tracing territories and even individuals across whole landscapes. This last aspect – their mobility – has been one of the toughest problems in reconstructing Neanderthal life. As hunter-gatherers outside the ecologically-rich tropics, it’s not unexpected that they were quite nomadic. Local environments are just not abundant enough to settle down anywhere all year round. But in contrast to some later Homo sapiens hunter-gatherer populations, Neanderthals don’t seem to have stayed anywhere for many months at a time.

How do we know this? Unfortunately it’s not possible to simply count up the number of hearths and tools in a layer, and assume that more stuff equals longer stays. That’s because of one of the most fiendish problems in deep prehistoric archaeology – time. Not how old a particular object is – we’ve got extremely good at measuring that, give or take statistical errors ranging from centuries to millennia (which tend to be overlooked when you’re talking about ages in excess of 100,000 years anyway). Rather, it’s time as process – the accretion of years represented by individual layers themselves.

Until recently, it wasn’t really possible to tell if a rich layer with 5,000 stone tools, 40,000 fragments of animal bones and 60 hearths reflected a few large Neanderthal groups living there for long periods, or alternatively much smaller numbers of individuals staying temporarily, but repeatedly. A remarkable new technique that examines micro-soot archives that accumulated on cave walls during successive occupations suggests that, in some places, just half a metre of cave dirt can represent 80 or more actual phases of Neanderthal occupation.

These days, however, given the right kind of site – where sediments accumulated fine and fast – patience excavating and analysing, archaeologists can disentangle the occupation history of particular places. By paying careful attention to changes in the micro-structure of sediments and tracing how broken artefacts moved between hearths or stayed within one ashy aureole, it almost becomes possible to discern the shadows and wraiths of ancient occupants themselves.

In some small rockshelters not so far from Abric Romaní, through centuries it seems that Neanderthals visited in tiny groups, lighting just one fire at a time. They brought some tools made elsewhere, did a little ibex and tortoise hunting (native to the Mediterranean, the latter is fast food in the sense of being easy to catch and cook, if not actually speedy), then butchered and ate, sharpened some tools, made a few fresh flakes, and after a night or two left once more.

In contrast, inside the larger Abric Romaní shelter, where you might expect larger groups to lodge, in some phases it does appear that multiple parts of the site including more than one hearth were active at the same time. The impression here is of a mix of short visits together with larger groups, staying longer. Red deer were being killed across the seasons, but in some layers horses look to have been targeted only at particular times of year. Hints that these hunts may have involved larger groups of Neanderthals come from the way carcasses were butchered and perhaps shared out around the rockshelter to different hearths.

The sites of Abric Romaní are the closest to traditional ideas of a Neanderthal “home”, but even here probably they weren’t in residence for more than a few weeks. Instead, this place, as with all others, was a point on a never-ending journey, which we can directly follow thanks to stone tool sourcing studies: along and between valleys, across even mighty rivers, and over high mountain passes. Their existence was truly nomadic, yet never an aimless wandering. They knew the land like the back of their hand, took with them only what they knew they’d need further ahead. For Neanderthals, the destination of life’s odyssey was the voyage itself.

To truly understand the Neanderthals, whether 55,000 years ago or all the way back to their earlier days 300,000 years before, we must reimagine our own preconceptions. For too long they’ve been presented as a foil to “us”. Whether 19th century intellectuals drawing on racist comparisons to interpret their fossils (and provide support for colonial power structures), or the presentation of Neanderthal society as base, aggressive and ultimately doomed because of inadequacy, their evolutionary distance was always maintained. When genetic proof that they were our direct ancestors emerged in 2010, the sudden realisation that Neanderthals were still here, inside us – in the blood beating in billions of living hearts – forced that picture to shift, and the archaeology itself was viewed differently.

Today we can consider them from the scale of entire landscapes stretching across western Eurasia right down to micro-scale reconstructions of how they skilfully and systematically used more diverse materials than we ever thought possible. What we find is that Neanderthals were fundamentally defined by efficiency, adaptability, experimentation, and quality. They were not failed test versions of humanity, but a successful people for well over 350,000 years, weathering climate fluctuations that may well decimate our feverishly consuming, globally-connected 21st century world. Look through the shadows, listen past echoes, and the Neanderthals may have much to tell us about resilience and survival. It is only by understanding them that we can truly understand ourselves.

Kindred: Neanderthals Life, Love, Death and Art by Rebecca Wragg Sykes is published by Bloomsbury Sigma. Available in hardback at Bloomsbury.com and at bookshops

Main image: visitors at the rockshelter in Abric Romaní, north-eastern Spain. Photo: Rosmi Duaso/Alamy

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to Evolving ideas

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.