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?

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Around 40,000 years ago, Neanderthals innovated again. In what passes for the blink of an eye in paleoanthropology, some Neanderthals were suddenly making long, thin stone blades and hafting more tools. Excavations in southwest France and northern Spain have uncovered Neanderthal tools betraying a more refined technique involving, Kuhn speculates, the use of soft hammers made of antler or bone.


What happened? According to the conventional wisdom, there was a culture clash. In the early 20th century, when researchers first discovered those “improved” lithics—called Châtelperronian and Uluzzian, depending on where they were found—they saw the relics as evidence that modern humans, Homo sapiens or Cro-Magnon, had arrived in Neanderthal territory. That’s because the tools resembled those unequivocally associated with anatomically modern humans, who began colonizing western Europe 38,000 years ago. And early efforts to assign a date to those Neanderthal lithics yielded time frames consistent with the arrival of modern humans.


But more recent discoveries and studies, including tests that showed the lithics to be older than previously believed, have prompted d’Errico and others to argue that Neanderthals advanced on their own. “They could respond to some change in their environment that required them to improve their technology,” he says. “They could behave like modern humans.”


Meanwhile, these “late” Neanderthals also discovered ornamentation, says d’Errico and his archaeologist colleague João Zilhão of the University of Lisbon. Their evidence includes items made of bone, ivory and animal teeth marked with grooves and perforations. The researchers and others have also found dozens of pieces of sharpened manganese dioxide—black crayons, essentially—that Neanderthals probably used to color animal skins or even their own. In his office at the University of Bordeaux, d’Errico hands me a chunk of manganese dioxide. It feels silky, like soapstone. “Toward the end of their time on earth,” he says, “Neanderthals were using technology as advanced as that of contemporary anatomically modern humans and were using symbolism in much the same way.”



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