The Underrated Genius of Neanderthals


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Geico’s “really easy a caveman can do it” promoting marketing campaign incorrectly minimized the intelligence of Neanderthals. (Credit score: Shutterstock)

(This publish initially appeared within the on-line anthropology journal SAPIENS. Comply with @SAPIENS_org on Twitter to find extra of their work.) 

For the final dozen years or so, Geico Insurance coverage has run commercials that includes Neanderthals in trendy contexts. The story line varies, however the take-home level doesn't: Switching to Geico is very easy that “even a caveman can do it,” says the tag line. The Neanderthal’s emotions are invariably harm, and a stereotype will get perpetuated. Do Neanderthals actually deserve such derision?

Popularly generally known as “cavemen,” Neanderthals were ancestral humans who lived in Western Europe, on the japanese shores of the Mediterranean, and in southwestern and central Asia from about 400,000 to 40,000 years in the past. They lived in glacial environments through the Ice Age in addition to in hotter time durations. Their foreheads have been low and receding in distinction to the excessive, virtually vertical foreheads of recent people. Additionally they had protruding faces and heavy forehead ridges above their eyes. Whereas it’s an open query whether or not you’d acknowledge a Neanderthal when you noticed one on the road, groomed and dressed in modern clothes, I wish to assume they’d mix in at my museum’s vacation get together.

The archaeological document from which we try and reconstruct Neanderthal conduct is beautiful—in the event you like stone instruments. There are dozens of web sites spanning a whole lot of hundreds of years. For properly over a century, archaeologists have analyzed Neanderthal stone instruments to know how they have been made, used, and (probably) categorised. Far much less is understood about Neanderthal work in bone, wooden, or different perishables, for these materials do not preserve within the archaeological document. We do know, nevertheless, that Neanderthals buried a few of their lifeless, in order that they in all probability loved some idea of an afterlife.

Neanderthals have been the brunt of merciless jokes and the goal of scientific and well-liked discrimination because the discovery of a Neanderthal skull cap in 1856 at Germany’s Feldhofer cave. It hasn’t helped that the primary fairly full skeleton of a Neanderthal, discovered at La Chapelle aux Saints in southern France in 1908, was a toothless previous man who suffered terribly from arthritis and different illnesses. When first reconstructed and depicted by paleontologist Marcellin Boule, the skeleton was drawn stooped over and as if he was shuffling. The previous advertising adage “you by no means get a second probability to make a great first impression” seems to ring true: Boule’s reconstruction stays remarkably influential even as we speak.

However, I supply a full disclosure: I really like Neanderthals. The previous man of La Chapelle was not a great, consultant pattern of his more healthy brothers and sisters, most of whom, in the event that they survived childhood, have been hardy people. Fortunately, more recent scientific reconstructions of Neanderthals permit for his or her ideas, senses of humor, and foresight, if not a totally trendy tradition. And what about these pesky stone instruments?

The La Chapelle aux Saints skeleton, whose replicated cranium is proven right here (prime), with its toothless mouth, doesn't symbolize a wholesome Neanderthal. (Credit score: Jacklee/Wikimedia Commons)

Our human ancestors have been making stone tools for three.three million years. For over half of that point, the instruments they created have been unsophisticated and have been normal solely when wanted. Merely discover a piece of fine-grained stone, corresponding to flint, that breaks in fairly predictable methods. Strike that stone “core” with one other, more durable rock (the “hammerstone”) to knock off a “flake.” Presto! You’ve received a stone device. That flake can reduce, scrape, or pierce relying in your wants, the sharpness of the sting, and the form of the flake.

However about 1.5 million years in the past one thing started to vary. Our ancestors began making stone instruments that have been extra standardized, typically within the type of teardrop-shaped hand axes. Some archaeologists would say these hand axes have been “curated”—created and maintained with a view to maximize their use-life and useful utility. Not have been stone instruments expediently produced; slightly, their care and creation required cognition and foresight.

About 325,000 years ago, a radically new stone software manufacturing course of burst onto the scene: the Levallois technique. Named after the archaeological website outdoors of Paris the place the method was first acknowledged and described by archaeologists within the 1860s, the method permits a toolmaker to create a device of predictable measurement and form.

For the Levallois method, the toolmaker takes an rectangular, comparatively flat flint nodule and strikes flakes off the thinner sides of the core all the best way round its circumference. She then flips the nodule over and strikes flakes off its entrance aspect, then flips it once more to do the identical on the again. Lastly, and after lots of such preparation, the toolmaker strikes one finish of the core to take away a big and distinctive “Levallois flake” off its entrance. By design, the sting of the Levallois flake will comply with the contours of earlier flake scars, creating a really good, skinny, and predictably formed software.

The invention of the Levallois method, which creates a predictably formed Levallois flake, is the primary tangible proof of summary thought within the archaeological document. (Credit score: José-Manuel Benito Álvarez/Wikimedia Commons)

The method is something however expedient—it takes time, effort, and talent to craft a Levallois core. Correctly ready, such a core can yield a number of flakes of predictable measurement and form, all of which can be utilized as instruments. Archaeologists have subsequently pointed to its look as a watershed second in human cognition—the diploma of foresight and planning required to create a Levallois core is way higher than that required for all earlier stone software applied sciences, together with hand axes.

Why is that this necessary? As a result of for the primary time we will see our ancestors targeted on an summary idea—a flake of predictable measurement and form—that didn't turn out to be manifest till the ultimate Levallois flake was faraway from the core.

And guess who used the Levallois method: Our pals the Neanderthals did!

As for whether or not Neanderthals had the capability for language and symbolic thought, the jury continues to be out. Current analysis on a Neanderthal hyoid bone, which is discovered within the neck and helps the tongue muscle tissue, means that that they had the bodily capability for language. Their brains have been on common bigger than these of absolutely trendy people, and analysis factors towards new proof for genuinely symbolic thought. Given the vagaries of archaeological preservation, we'll by no means know the entire vary of bodily objects Neanderthals produced. By extension, it's extremely unlikely we'll ever absolutely perceive their capability for creating summary ideas and symbols, a lot much less language. Ah, oui.

Michelangelo as soon as stated that he “noticed the angel within the marble and carved till I set him free.” A Neanderthal flintknapper as soon as noticed a device in flint and chipped till she set it free—much less romantic maybe however evolutionarily extra essential.