Sarah Pick

This webpage was created to satisfy requirements for the Quaternary Geology
course (ES767) during the fall of 2011 at Emporia State University

Table of Contents
Introduction Discovery
Morphological Features Misconceptions
Climate and Environment Tools
Conclusion References


Of all the species in the hominid evolutionary tree, Neanderthals are the human ancestors that we know the most about. Since their recognition as a new species in the mid-19th century, people have been attempting to learn more about them. Scientists have studied Neanderthal skeletons, tools, burial sites, and paleoclimates in an attempt to learn more about what life was like for Neanderthals. Neanderthals thrived for about 130,000 years, surviving ice ages and interglaciations. Not much evidence remains on the behavioral aspects of Neanderthals and controversy is abundant on the topics of true Neanderthal features and on the cause for extinction.

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Homo neanderthalensis was first discovered and recognized as a new species in 1856 in Neander Valley, near Düsseldorf, Germany. A partial skull, consisting of a large forehead, a large overhanging brow, and a flat part of the top of the head was found in a cave located in the valley. In France, in 1908, a skeleton of a man was discovered in the La Chapelle-aux-Saints cave. The skeleton was well preserved with only a few teeth and vertebrae missing (Constable, 1973). Many more Neanderthal skeletons and tools have been discovered since then. These remains have been radio carbon dated with the oldest remains dating back 150 to 160 thousand years while the youngest remains date to 30,000 years ago (Tattersall and Schwartz, 2000).

Figure 1. A map showing the range of Homo neanderthalensis shaded in green. (Ryulong, 2007).

Figure 2. Photo of section of skull discovered in Neander Valley (Somma, 1980).

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Morphological Features

There is some controversy as to what contributes to true Neanderthal features. Most paleoanthropologists believe that features such as thick-walled arms, long low skulls, a bulge on the occipital bone, a broad nose, prominent brow ridge, broad shoulders, a barrel-shaped chest, large jaw, etc. are features that are visible in all Neanderthals (Zimmer, 2005; Arsuaga, 2001; Constable, 1970). Whereas others (O’Neil, 2011; Tattersall and Schwartz, 2000) believe that the previously mentioned features are not found in all Neanderthal skeletons due to regional variation. O’Neil (2011) writes that “Neanderthals were physically diverse, but in general they [European Neanderthals] were larger boned and more heavily muscled than most modern humans”. Neanderthals that lived in Southwest Asia had a body more like modern humans and were less robust. Paleoanthropologists who believe the latter claim that the only true Neanderthal morphological features include a “bony projection” inside the nasal opening, “huge maxillary sinuses”, a sutured edge of the occipital bone, a long collar bone, and broad finger tips.

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Many of the misconceptions about Neanderthals originated after observations based on the virtually complete remains found at La Chapelle-aux-Saints. The individual found here was unique because he was over 40 years old (which is considered very old for Neanderthals). Arthritis had given him a hunched posture and a disease, such as rickets, caused his legs to bow. This this was the first complete skeleton discovered, it was believed that all Neanderthals possessed these features. A few of the assumptions based on these features depicted Neanderthals as “dull-witted, brutish, ape-like creatures who walked hunched over with a shuffling gate” (O’Neil, 2011). It was also believed that they could barely survive on a day to day basis. As more skeletal remains and tools were discovered, scientists came to realize that Neanderthals were not as unintelligent as originally believed.

Figure 3. The first reconstruction of Neanderthals based off of the remains at La Chapelle-aux-Saints (Schaaffhausen, 1888).

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Climate and Environment

Another misconception of Neanderthals is that they lived in very cold, harsh environments. This is partially true. Ice Ages are generally considered to be a period of time with glacial landscapes and freezing temperatures. However, there have been drastic changes in in the climate from bitterly cold periods to a mild climate; occasionally it got as warm as it is today (BBC, 2005; Mayell, 2004). Primitive Neanderthals lived during the Riss (Illinoian) glaciation. At this time, ice sheets were flowing from the north and mountain glaciers were flowing down from the Alps. These ice sheets and glaciers were too dangerous to cross, so early Neanderthals were more or less trapped on small patches of land in Europe that had a tundra environment. The Riss (Illinoian) glaciation ended 125,000 years ago and was followed by a period of interglaciation (R/W or Sangamon) that lasted 50,000 years. During this period of interglaciation, glaciers shrank, sea-level rose, and northern latitudes became more habitable (Tattersall and Schwartz, 2000).

Roughly 75,000 years ago, glaciers began to grow again; this marks the beginning of the Würm (Wisconsin) glaciation. At first, this glaciation did not seem severe; summers were cold and rainy and winters were snowy. Glaciers continued to grow and the cold intensified. A tundra environment spread to the south and covered parts of present day France and Germany and small sections of Asia and the Middle East. In these areas, snow and ice covered the ground for most of the year. When the snow and ice melted, areas with low elevations were flooded. Summer temperatures rarely rose above 50°F (Constable, 1973). As the glaciers grew, some Neanderthals migrated to the Levant. The Levant is a region that includes parts of Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Egypt (Zimmer, 2005). The environment here consisted of open grasslands with lakes and ponds. Summers were generally sunny and mild and winters were cold and snowy. Other Neanderthals migrated into the mountainous areas in southern Asia. After leaving the mountains, Neanderthals encountered arid environments (Constable, 1973).

Neanderthal diet was based on the region in which they lived. In glacial or tundra environments, they hunted reindeer, woolly rhinoceros, and mammoths. Due to the intense cold, vegetation was scarce. Those that lived around the Mediterranean Sea, where the climate was cool and dry, could utilize the conifers, heather, and juniper found in the region. They hunted elephants, horses, and goats and may have eaten fish or shellfish. At streams and springs found along the edges of deserts, Neanderthals ate gazelles, antelope, and Cape buffalo. Those that lived in open grassland areas hunted zebras, giraffes, hippopotamus, baboons, and apes. Those living near rainforests may have foraged for vegetables, but it is believed they did not hunt here because it would have been impossible to accomplish with their style of hunting (Constable, 1973).

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Naturally, Neanderthals needed tools to aid them in killing and butchering game. They used the Levallois technique to create their tools. In this method “a flint nodule was chipped around the side and on the top; then this prepared core was rapped at a particular point on its side. The blow resulted in a flake of predetermined size and shape, with long sharp cutting edges” (Constable, 1970). By studying Neanderthal spear points it is believed that Neanderthals were ambush hunters. Their spear points were thick and heavy and would not have been of much use if thrown. There has also been evidence to prove that they drove herds over cliffs and then butchered the animals. It is believed by some that Neanderthals could communicate based on their hunting methods. Neanderthals did not make pottery or baskets; they did not sew. They did use hides for clothing but the hides were tied together with leather strips. And while they did not use bones for tools, they were innovative enough to use resources available to them to make their lives easier. For example, in environments were water was scarce, there is evidence that Neanderthals used ostrich egg shells as canteens (Constable, 1973).

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Scientists have found substantial evidence to help them understand Neanderthal skeletal structure, tools, and environments. Behavioral evidence is rare. It is not known if they had music or if they thought about life after death and the question of whether or not Neanderthals used art is highly debated. It is known that Neanderthals took care of their sick and injured and that they buried their dead. The previously mentioned La Chapelle-aux-Saints skeleton had arthritis so severe that hunting was impossible. He also only had two teeth and was not able to chew. This means that whoever was taking care of him had to soften the food by partially chewing it. A second example is evident from remains found in the Shanidar cave in Iraq in the remains of a 40 year old male that had a poorly developed right arm and shoulder. It is evident that with his arm, he would not have lasted long if he had to fend for himself. From this individual’s grave comes the best evidence that Neanderthals buried their dead. Soil samples indicate that pollen was present at the grave site. Because the grave was located so far back in the cave, it is doubtful that the pollen was deposited by animals or by the wind; the most likely explanation is that masses of flowers were placed on the grave by others in the dead Neanderthal’s band (Tattersall and Schwartz, 2000).

Figure 7. Artist's rendition of a Neanderthal burial (Vincentz, 2009).

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The most controversial subject on Neanderthals is what happened to them. Some scientists believe that Homo sapiens evolved from Homo neanderthalensis. Others (Tattersall and Schwartz, 2000) are under the impression that Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis interbred and the traits of sapiens were dominant while those of neanderthalensis were recessive. Still others believe that Neanderthals were not as well adapted as early humans or that Neanderthals became extinct due to competition with early humans (Barras, 2011; O’Niel, 2011; University of Cambridge, 2011; Tattersall and Schwartz, 2000). A few scientists believe that Neanderthals died out because they had “metabolic adaptations” to cold climates and their bodies could not handle the stress of living in a warmer environment (Callaway, 2008). Several believe that the eruption of several volcanoes in quick succession killed off vegetation in the surrounding area, which in turn led to a decline in grazing animals, the main food source for Neanderthals (Than, 2010). Most scientists, however, agree that it was a combination of factors that killed off the Neanderthals (O’Neil, 2011; Hall, 2008; Roach, 2006; BBC, 2005; Mayell, 2004). It is believed that as the climate changed, so did the environment. Ambush hunting was not practical in the new environment, so Neanderthals were not getting as much food. They did interact with early humans, but for the most part the two groups tended to avoid each other. Because earlier humans had better technology and better hunting methods, they were able to survive while Neanderthals could not (Than, 2010).

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Neanderthals were first recognized as a new species in 1856 with the age of their remains ranging from 160,000 to 30,000 years old. Scientists argue as to what constitutes true Neanderthal features with some believing that morphological features vary depending on the region the Neanderthal lived in. After the first virtually complete skeleton was discovered, people have based their assumptions off of that one skeleton, which resulted in several misconceptions that are now in the process of being remedied. Neanderthals did not always live in cold climates. While their tools were not sophisticated, they were innovative and used whatever resources were available to them. Neanderthals took care of their injured and buried their dead. The true cause for their disappearance is unknown, but several theories have been suggested.

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Arsuaga, J.L. 2002. The Neanderthal’s Necklace. Four Walls Eight Windows, New York. pp. 334.

Barras, C., 2011. Industrial Revolution Sealed Neanderthals’ Fate. New Scientist. , accessed 4 November 2011.

BBC, 2005. Neanderthal. , accessed 4 November 2011.

Callaway, E., 2008. Did Neanderthal Cells Cook as the Climate Warmed. New Scientist. , accessed 4 November 2011.

Constable, G., 1973. The Neanderthals. Time-Life Books, New York. pp. 160.

Hall, S.S., 2008. Last of the Neanderthals. National Geographic Magazine. , accessed 4 November 2011.

Mayell,H., 2004. Climate Change Killed Neanderthals, Study Says. National Geographic News. , accessed 4 November 2011.

O’Neil, D., 2011. Evolution of Modern Humans: Neanderthals. , accessed 4 November 2011.

Roach, J., 2006. Neanderthals’ Last Stand was in Gibraltar, Study Suggests. National Geographic News. , accessed 4 November 2011.

Ryulong, 2007. Range of Homo neanderthalensis. , accessed 28 November 2011.

Schaaffhausen, H., 1888. Neanderthaler Fund. , accessed 28 November 2011.

Somma, R., 1980. Neanderthal Skullcap. , accessed 28 November 2011.

Tattersall, I. and J.H. Schwartz, 2000. Extinct Humans. Westview Press, Canada. pp.256.

Than, K., 2010. Volcanoes Killed Off Neanderthals, Study Suggests. National Geographic. , accessed 4 November 2011.

University of Cambridge, 2011. Fall of the Neanderthals: Volume of Modern Humans Infiltrating Europe Cited as Critical Factor. ScienceDaily. , accessed 4 November 2011.

Vinventz, F., 2009. Bautzen Großwelka - Sauriergarten - Neandertaler 01 ies.jpg. , accessed 28 November 2011.

Zimmer, C., 2005. Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins. Madison Press Books, Canada. pp. 176.

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