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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I get a feel for Neanderthal handiwork in Maureille’s office, where plastic milk crates are stacked three high in front of his desk. They’re stuffed with plastic bags full of olive and tan flints from Les Pradelles. With his encouragement, I take a palm-size, D-shaped flint out of a bag. Its surface is scarred as though by chipping, and the flat side has a thin edge. I readily imagine I could scrape a hide with it or whittle a stick. The piece, Maureille says, is about 60,000 years old. “As you can see from the number of lithics we’ve found,” he adds, referring to the crates piling up in his office, “Neanderthals were prolific and accomplished toolmakers.”


Among the new approaches to Neanderthal study is what might be called paleo-mimicry, in which researchers themselves fashion tools to test their ideas. “What we do is make our own tools out of flint, use them as a Neanderthal might have, and then look at the fine detail of the cutting edges with a high-powered microscope,” explains Michael Bisson, chairman of anthropology at McGill University in Montreal. “Atool used to work wood will have one kind of wear pattern that differs from that seen when a tool is used to cut meat from a bone, and we can see those different patterns on the implements recovered from Neanderthal sites.” Similarly, tools used to scrape hide show few microscopic scars, their edges having been smoothed by repeated rubbing against skin, just as stropping a straight razor will hone its edge. As Kuhn, who has also tried to duplicate Neanderthal handicraft, says: “There is no evidence of really fine, precise work, but they were skilled in what they did.”


Based on the consistent form and quality of the tools found at sites across Europe and western Asia, it appears likely that Neanderthal was able to pass along his toolmaking techniques to others. “Each Neanderthal or Neanderthal group did not have to reinvent the wheel when it came to their technologies,” says Bisson.


The kinds of tools that Neanderthals began making about 200,000 years ago are known as Mousterian, after the site in France where thousands of artifacts were first found. Neanderthals struck off pieces from a rock “core” to make an implement, but the “flaking” process was not random; they evidently examined a core much as a diamond cutter analyzes a rough gemstone today, trying to strike just the spot that would yield “flakes,” for knives or spear points, requiring little sharpening or shaping.



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