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Rethinking Neanderthals

Research suggests they fashioned tools, buried their dead, maybe cared for the sick and even conversed. But why, if they were so smart, did they disappear?

The arrangement of fossilized Neanderthal skeletons in the ground demonstrates to many archaeologists that Neanderthals buried their dead. “They might not have done so with elaborate ritual, since there has never been solid evidence that they included symbolic objects in graves, but it is clear that they did not just dump their dead with the rest of the trash to be picked over by hyenas and other scavengers,” says archaeologist Francesco d’Errico of the University of Bordeaux.

 

Paleoanthropologists generally agree that Neanderthals lived in groups of 10 to 15, counting children. That assessment is based on a few lines of evidence, including the limited remains at burial sites and the modest size of rock shelters. Also, Neanderthals were top predators, and some top predators, such as lions and wolves, live in small groups.

 

Steven Kuhn, an archaeologist at the University of Arizona, says experts “can infer quite a bit about who Neanderthal was by studying tools in conjunction with the other artifacts they left behind.” For instance, recovered stone tools are typically fashioned from nearby sources of flint or quartz, indicating to some researchers that a Neanderthal group did not necessarily range far.

 

The typical Neanderthal tool kit contained a variety of implements, including large spear points and knives that would have been hafted, or set in wooden handles. Other tools were suitable for cutting meat, cracking open bones (to get at fatrich marrow) or scraping hides (useful for clothing, blankets or shelter). Yet other stone tools were used for woodworking; among the very few wooden artifacts associated with Neanderthal sites are objects that resemble spears, plates and pegs.

 

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