Neanderthals Shared Modern Man’s Ability — And Desire — To Organize Their Living Spaces

By Ajit Jha on December 3, 2013 10:16 AM EST

Riparo Bombrini excavation site.
Archaeologists excavating Neanderthal levels at Riparo Bombrini, Northwest Italy. (Photo: University of Colorado, Denver)

A new study published in the Canadian Journal of Archaeology shows that Neanderthals organized their living spaces in ways that are characterized by modern human beings.

It has been fairly well known especially after recent advances in high throughput DNA sequencing and several studies that Neanderthals and modern humans shared a common ancestor in Africa around 500,000 years ago. But these findings confirm that Neanderthals were a lot like humans behaviorally, and not just at a genetic level. The study argues that Neanderthals gathered round the fire, made tools, and butchered animals.

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The study demolishes earlier ideas that "Neanderthals did not have an organized use of space, something that has always been attributed to humans," according to Julien Riel-Salvatore, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado Denver and lead author of the study.  The study claims that Neanderthals were "organized and purposeful" in using the domestic space.

The current findings are based on excavations at Riparo Bombrini, in northwest Italy, where both Neanderthals and early humans are thought to have lived for thousands of years. While the current study investigated the Neanderthal "level," future studies will focus on modern human levels. The study will compare the way two groups each organized their space. 

Of the three levels at this site assigned to Neanderthals, scientists found that they used the top level as a task site or hunting stand to kill and prepare game. The middle level comprised of a long-term base camp while the bottom level a residential base camp for a shorter term.

The high frequency of animal remains in the rear of the top level indicated to the research team that the area was used for butchering game. However, the use of ochre color in the back of the center was inexplicable. They could have used it for "tanning hides, for gluing, as an antiseptic or even for symbolic purposes - we really can't tell at this point," 

Riel-Salvatore said.

The middle level has the densest trace of human occupation including differential artifacts distribution. Animal bones, including stone tools, or lithics, were in front of the cave rather than the rear. About half a meter to a meter from the wall of the cave was found a hearth that might have made the cave warm in the living area. The debris left after making stone tools are not to be found in high traffic areas so as to avoid injuries. The back of the shelter near the hearth had fewer stone artifacts for the same reason.

The study is a part of an ongoing research project being conducted by Riel-Salvatore, designed to support the thesis that Neanderthals were far more advanced than originally thought. Earlier by the same researcher found that Neanderthals developed ornaments, bone tools, and projectile points. In a previous paper, Riel-Salvatore argued that the ultimate demise of the Neanderthals was caused by interbreeding between Neanderthals and humans; between one and four percent of human genome, especially among Europeans, are made up of Neanderthal genes.    

The upshot of the current study, according to Riel-Salvatore is that Neanderthals were logical in using their living space. If modern human beings are to be characterized by the use of organized spatial patterns, then this characteristic must be extended to Neanderthals also, claimed Riel-Salvatore.  

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