Following on from my last blog concerning the evolution of language, I thought I should follow suit with some evolution of man…A bit of anthropology. I’ll try my best to get my facts straight, but how do we really know what’s true or false? (That was a philosophy joke) Anyway, understanding the past is a blueprint for the future, so I hope you enjoy.
Neanderthals are said to be an extinct human archaic species. ‘Homo neanderthalensis’ lived around 40,000 years ago (rough estimate), and went extinct due to factors such as climate change, disease and competition with European humans. Albeit we have limited remains, the ancient DNA within preserved dental plaque, uncovered the diet and health of Neanderthals. Not only this, but their behaviour, culture and interactions.
Their anatomy was directly related to physical conditions. Neanderthals were shorter and stockier, facilitating better adaption to the weather pre climate change. Modern humans had taller and leaner bodies (most of them anyway), more vulnerable to the cold. Their robust build reduced exposure to the cold and retained warmth. They had weather-adaptations, such as specialised fat storage. I like to blame my slight excess on this… They also had large noses, caused by genetic drift.
- Average man: 5ft5, 75kg/165lbs
- Average woman: 5ft, 60kg/132lbs
Were they tougher people or just used to a tougher climate?
The total population remained low, but there is evidence of cultural crossovers. It’s suggested that they had multiple caves, moving with respect to the weather and climate. The high pace and stressful environment facilitated their low life expectancy. They are said to have lived to the age of 40, but 80% died just after the age of 20. When you think life expectancy was around 40, and now it’s doubled, the way we live has dramatically changed.
Hunter/gatherers chose to live mostly naked in the summers, but in the winter would use animal skin to keep them warm. Clothes do not fossilise, so there’s little to no evidence as to what they wore. Yet the only logical idea would be to skin animals that they ate, or use nature to protect themselves from the elements. A wolf is a good illustration of this; wolves are still hunted by the Inuits today as the structure of the fur doesn’t freeze like others. They were covered mostly in long hair, so lacked the requirement of clothes most of the time. They wore clothes/fur to compensate for hair loss, there was less embarrassment about being naked in simpler times. Neanderthal technology is thought to have been sophisticated (for their time). They were the first to use tools made out of bone, rather than stone. “Lissoir tools” were rib fragments from deer, this is a great example of what they would use to kill animals and cut the skin to make clothing.
The ‘Spy Neanderthal’ found in Belgium fit the carnivorous stereotype. As a big game hunter, they likely ate woolly rhinoceros and wild sheep. If you need to visualise this, think of ‘Ice Age’ the movie and how the hunters lived through the ice age. They rarely ate vegetables, but when they did, it was native mushrooms, still consumed in Europe today. The ‘El Sidron Neanderthal’ found in Spain was remarkably different, illustrating cultural and geographical differences. They consumed a mostly vegetarian diet, consuming pine nuts, moss, tree bark and a variety of mushrooms and herbaceous material. They cooked their food over a cave fire, achieving soups, strews and animal stocks. The animal bone fragment indicated the boiling of bone marrow, taken from animals who were already dead of starvation.
They had a very low carb intake and a high protein consumption. Their incisors were much larger to crunch through bone and tough meat, but due to softening food our teeth have become smaller and more blunt. Neanderthals also smoked food, using plants such as camomile for flavour. If they killed more than they ate, they learnt to preserve food from spoilage. This is the earliest version of curing meat and food storage. Cannibalism was actually practised quite regularly across this era. There is evidence from Croatia and Belgium that upper limbs were removed, lower limbs defleshed, and the chest cavity emptied. There is also evidence that human bones were used further as tools.
In 1971, P.Lieberman reconstructed the vocal tract of Neanderthals. He stated it was similar to that of a newborn, incapable of producing nasal sounds due to their large mouths. He thus concluded they lacked the ability to articulate speech, albeit they were capable of communicating sounds. However, the discovery of the Neanderthal hyoid bone (used in speech production in humans) suggested they were more developed than we thought. Not as far as the human dialect, but they were capable of syntactical language (structuring language, eg. Word order). Just like many things, the degree of language complexity is yet to be established. It will have differed across cultures and time periods. Given their interbreeding with humans it becomes viable to suggest they were fairly articulate in language necessary to survive. Just like the ‘usefulness’ of language I referred to in my last blog, they will have primarily used words of value, phasing out any words that didn’t aid survival. Just like their tools and clothes, necessity is the mother of invention. Not only this, but for language, it was survival of the fittest.
The common misconception is that Neanderthals were ‘knuckle-dragging cavemen’. Albeit true to some extent, I find their survival incredible. They were consummate hunters of medium/large animals, and they used stone-tipped spears to hunt. The spears were probably used at close-range, and thrown a short distance during an ambush. It was eat or be eaten, so as you can imagine they were quite capable hunters. If you’ve ever thrown a javelin, you’ll understand the effort that was needed to guarantee a good distance. They hunted in ‘bands’, and killed prey up close. Capable of collective hunting strategies, they thrust their spears from an underhand angle (see below).
Many humans still hold Neanderthal DNA, highlighting the importance of learning this history. This further illustrates how the need for survival facilitates development. There is still much more to learn, but we all have to start somewhere.