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Friday, 19 April 2024, 04:22 (04:22 AM) CDT, day 110 of 2024

Prehistoric Cultures

Fall 2012 Calendar -- DAY  [archive]

Fall 2012 Calendar  -- EVENING [archive]

Dates and Times to Remember 

class slides on-line 

Friday, 19 April 2024, 09:22 (09:22 AM) GMT, day 110 of 2024
. . . in History 
  . . . in Headlines

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Neanderthals on Trial

60 min., 2002, VC 4333

"Were Neanderthals human like us, or were they sub-human brutes? Since the discovery of the first Neanderthal skeleton in 1856, scientists have battled over exactly how we're related to these prehistoric cave-dwellers. There's plenty of new evidence, including DNA analysis, but nothing seems to settle the case. Neanderthals on trial takes a look at the debate, showing how science works, and how investigators sometimes fool themselves into seeing what they want to see."

Terms / Concepts / Features

  • Neandertals are also known as a special type of "Archaic Homo sapiens"
    • Archaics are earlier forms of Homo sapiens that differ from Homo erectus, but lack the full set of characteristic diagnostics of modern Homo sapiens
  • "Early Modern Man" aka Cro-Magnon
  • giant cave bear, lions, wolves, wolverines, wild dogs, and other carnivores like big cats (leopards) were important animals in Neandertal life
  • endocasts
  • ice age
  • muscle reconstruction
  • woolly mammoth
  • Asian wild dog
  • used "thrusting tools"
    • not thrown
    • "they had no real long-range weapons"
    • they had large, heavy spears
    • the Neandertal had to kill animals in close quarters, which was dangerous
      • most like modern-day rodeo riders
  • "Venus" figurines
  • Mousterian -- the tradition / period of Neandertals
  • "proto-language" (Paul Mellars)


  • Timeline:
    • 1997 isolated Neandertal DNA
      • Neandertals are almost exactly halfway between the chimpanzee and modern humans
      • diverged ca. 600,000 ybp
    • "Little Ice Age" : 1600s, 1700s, 1800s
    • The most recent Neandertal = ca. 26,000 ybp ??
    • About 35,000 ypb the Neandertals disappeared so suddenly; this is the "Neandertal Problem"
    • About 40,000 ybp "a new human type [Cro-magnon] began to spread across Europe."
      • 30,000 - 35,000 ybp modern humans went through a "rapid cultural explosion"
    • ca. 130,000 ybp the earth was cooling rapidly
    • It is thought that "modern man" began to leave the African continent between 150,000 and 200,000 ybp
    • 250,000 mya+ Neandertals were found from the British Isles to the Middle East, from the Atlantic to the Caucasus
      • they also spread as far as modern-day Israel
    • ca. 250,000 there is an individual in a cave in Israel which is not Neandertal
      • Is it an Early Homo sapiens sapiens?
      • Or maybe a late Homo erectus?
      • "This is the most significant fossil in Israel."
    • About 600,000 ybp the Neandertal and Homo sapiens sapiens diverged. The research shows that genetically Neandertal was different, but culturally they were similar.
    • 2 mya Homo erectus spread across Europe and to Asia, and "a new species evolved from Homo erectus all over the world"
  • In this film note the important relationship between field archaeology and laboratory analysis
  • Note the Neandertals' physical (biological) and cultural (learned) adjustment
    • physical
      • Allen's Rule
      • Bergman's Rule
      • Neandertal burned a huge number of calories; they burned twice the calories of the laborer today
    • cultural
      • fire
        • Fire was the center of Neandertal life. It held the group together
          • Louis Binford: Neanderthals made inefficient use of fire. They also didn't plan ahead and take advantage of predictable events (like a salmon run). They were exploiting the environment "on an encounter basis" rather than on "a tactical one."
      • clothing
        • Neandertal worn-down teeth indicate that they may have "tanned" leather by chewing on it
      • shelter
      • tools
      • used medical plants in order to cure their own people
      • did surgery
  • Their average group was "about a dozen people; there were seldom over twenty."
    • we know from their high dependence on tortoises (given the tortoises' high sensitivity to overexploitation) that the populations were small
  • Ice Age
    • The Neandertals were "ice age specialists." But later on in the film they say that the Neandertals were "generalists, not specialists" in the sense that "everyone had to know how to do every thing." How would you explain the apparent conflict in these two statements?
    • 100,000 ybp the ice sheet was 1 mi. thick over Scandinavia
      • downtown New York City would have been covered over to the height of the tall skyscrapers
    • In the 1990s there was a 3-year project to analyze a continuous sample of ice 3000 meters long to the bedrock
    • Greenland's ice is up to 3 km. thick
    • There was a 15 to 20 degree F. change in world temperatures in 20 years.
      • A change of a degree or two during a time span of 20 years would be considered a lot
      • And about ca. 35,000 ybp there was an increase in the cold of 5 - 6 degrees F.
      • and there was less tree growth
  • During Neandertal times the North Sea was a dry plain.
  • Excavations have uncovered several Neandertal cemeteries
    • The graves prove that the Neandertals dealt consciously with the notion of death
    • But some argue that this burial practice doesn't in itself prove that the Neandertals had spirituality or religion
    • Others suggest that burial suggest spirituality, and that suggests complex thought, and that suggest the presence of a language like we know it.
    • Erik Trinkaus: But there was concern for family. They were burying their dead, for example.
      • Abstract thought requires words (language)
  • They had music (flute)
    • bone of a bear, from Croatia
  • Neandertal also cared for the sick and aged
    • The individual Erik Trinkhaus is describing is from Shanidar, and appears as Creb, "the Clan's Mog-ur, or magician," the "most revered holy man of all of the clans," in Jean Auel's The Clan of the Cave Bear series
    • "There is no doubt that they were a social group that did take care of their members." (Iraq)
  • Neanderthal "diagnostics": low forehead, high brow ridges, large nasal opening, prognathasm, recessed chin, and "teardrop shaped head."
    • Neandertal brains, on average, are larger than ours today.
  • They also seemed to have an unusual relationship between men and women. The men and women led mostly separate lives, with men bringing few things back to the cave that didn't need processing of some sort. There was not much concern for family. They didn't have speech abilities like modern humans.
  • It is a biological fact that the younger a specimen, the harder it is to tell its taxonomic classification. For e.g., it is difficult to tell a chimp infant from a gorilla infant. But with this 9-month-old we can clearly see the individual as a Neandertal.
  • There was "an invasion of the Neandertal from the North."
  • The skull is missing from the Neandertal in Kebara Cave. Could this be "like a Catholic relic?"
  • St. Caesare, 36,000 ybp, one of the last of the Neandertals, had a wolf tooth ornament
  • Homo sapiens sapiens was more mobile and more adaptable
  • In history, "there are winners and losers. Neandertal was a loser."
  • Problems include:

    1. The "Neandertal Problem" is about why the Neandertals disappeared so suddenly about 35,000 ypb
      • This probably relates to the fact that the Neandertals were very specialized to exploit a specific ecological niche
      • 25 - 30 people can not live by themselves
        • One must have at least 250 participating in the same mating system, "Otherwise you are doomed."

    2. Are they a separate species, or are they a variety of Homo sapiens?

    3. Did they interbreed with the Cro-Magnon? And if so, what were the consequences?

      • Near Amud Cave in Israel there are caves with burials suggesting a relationship between Homo sapiens sapiens and Neandertal.
      • In Europe, Neandertal and Homo sapiens sapiens occupied the same area for at least 10,000 years, 50,000 years in the Mideast
        • We do have examples of Homo sapiens sapiens and Neandertal from the cave
        • The cave was lived in for 150,000 years.
          • 40% of the identifiable bones are from tortoises
          • we know from their high dependence on tortoises (given the tortoises' high sensitivity to overexploitation) that the populations were small
            • Their average group was "about a dozen people; there were seldom over twenty."
      • If so, are any Neandertals ancestral to any contemporary humans?

    1. Did the Neandertals speak a language?
      • Paul Mellars thinks they had a "proto-language," a language of a 2-year-old child


  • Neanderthal
  • Mousterian ("The period of Neanderthal Man")
  • Chatelperonnian
  • Homo erectus
  • Homo antecessor
  • Homo sapiens


  • Germany
    • Neander Valley (1856)
      • The Neander-tal in 19th century German
  • France
    • Dorgogne Valley
    • La Ferrassie
    • Lascaux
    • La Chapelle-aux-Saints
    • Combe Grenal
    • Le Moustier ("Mousterian")
    • Cap Blanc
    • St. Caesar, SW France
  • Israel
    • Amud Cave
    • Kabara Cave
    • Mt. Carmel Caves, 100,000 ybp
    • Tabún
    • Skhúl
    • [Qafzeh Cave]
    • 250,000 ybp not Neandertal
      • Late Homo erectus or early Homo sapiens?
  • Gibraltar
    • 1848
    • 30,000 ybp
  • Iraq
    • Shanidar (Creb)
  • Belgium
    • Spy (896)
  • Czech Republic
    • Brno


  • Johan Karl Fuhlrott
  • Rudolf Virchow
  • Marcellan Boule
  • Erik Trinkaus
  • Louis Binford
  • Louise Aiello (brain)
  • Yoel Rak
  • Mary Stinner (tortoise)
  • Jean Jacques Hudlin
  • Maracia Ponce de Leon
  • Paul Mellars
  • Jan Jelinek
  • Ofer Bar-Yosef
  • Axel Von Berg
  • Bernard Vandermeersch
  • Dick Mol (Rotterdam)
  • The "Old Man" of La Chappelle-aux-Saints (France)

Publications / Bibliography

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