Neanderthals May Have Practiced the Ancient Art of Interior Design

Excavations showed that Neanderthals may have designed their homes with purpose

No no no, Guurr, put the mammoth tusk over there, it helps balance the energy. Courtesy of Flickr user Jaroslav A. Polák

The stereotype of Neanderthals as big-boned brutes is evaporating rapidly. Recent research has detailed their penchant for highly-refined tools, self-expression through art, and a love of the grill. And now a new study, led by Julien Riel-Salvatore, has found that Neanderthals didn't just decorate their cave all willy-nilly. Rather, they laid out their homes with care, with different parts of the cave being used for different purposes in a repeated, reliable way.

This research isn't the first to reveal Neanderthals' interior design chop, but more evidence only adds to the argument that they, too, practiced what was thought to have been an exclusively human behavior. Riel-Salvatore and his team dug through the history of occupation of a cave in Italy that's known as Riparo Bombrini,and they say that over thousands of years, the cave was used multiple times, often in different ways. Sometimes it was a foraging base camp, sometimes a longer term home. Depending on how the cave was being used, says Riel-Salvatore, the cave's décor—the fire and workspaces and the room where hunted game was cleaned and prepared—was laid out differently.

When Neanderthals were living in the cave for longer periods at a time, the researchers say, they often kept a fire place, or hearth, at the back of the cave, where its warmth and light would permeate the living space. Messy or dangerous activities, like making stone tools or cleaning animals, were given their own spaces. The findings, says Riel-Salvatore and the team in the paper, suggests that “noisome activities likely took place away from the back of the shelter and that this was likely especially true for activities that generated animal refuse liable to rot and/or draw pests or carnivores to the site.”

The team also found that when the Neanderthals came back to the cave, again and again over the years, they tended to use the caves' space in similar ways, tweaked to suit their needs, suggesting there was a method to their design schemes.

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