These 9 New Archaeological Discoveries Will Make You Rethink Neanderthal History
These 9 New Archaeological Discoveries Will Make You Rethink Neanderthal History

These 9 New Archaeological Discoveries Will Make You Rethink Neanderthal History

Michelle Powell-Smith - April 2, 2018

These 9 New Archaeological Discoveries Will Make You Rethink Neanderthal History
Cave paintings. Wikimedia.

Neanderthals as Creators

Increasingly, archaeologists recognize that the Neanderthals created art and decoration; the creative process shows evidence of symbolic thought. When you realize that the Neanderthals created art of different types, they seem ever closer to modern humans.

Evidence of art and decoration takes several forms. Archaeologists have discovered various types of pigments, particularly ochre, at Neanderthal sites. It is possible that ochre was used for other purposes; however, the most common use of ochre was to produce paint. This paint could be used on surfaces of different types, including on the skin. Archaeology has identified both black and red pigments. While the existence of pigments at Neanderthal sites shows that the Neanderthals knew and understood their use, it does not prove that they used them for decoration. They may have used these pigments for other purposes; however, the most common use of ochres is painting or decoration of some form.

In addition to pigments, there is also evidence that the Neanderthals produced ornamentation of different sorts, including decorated and drilled shells that were likely worn on the body, as jewelry of sorts. There is no other explanation for the use of shells other than adornment; they serve no functional purpose, other than being pretty. The decoration on the shells acts as a sort of glitter, catching the light and sparkling.

Along with shells and pigments, archaeologists have found small artifacts that indicate an aesthetic sense, or desire to decorate the objects around them. Researchers have identified a bird bone from a site in Crimea, for instance, embellished with a series of engraved and etched lines for decoration.

One of the most important discoveries in Neanderthal archaeology is a recent one; announced in February 2018. Caves in Spain that were used by Neanderthals are decorated with simple cave paintings, including outlines of hands and lines. There are outlines of animals present, but these have not been confirmed to be of the same date as the handprints and other simple drawings. Carbon dating has shown these to be at least 66,000 years old. Modern humans did not appear in Spain until around 40,000 to 45,000 years ago.

These 9 New Archaeological Discoveries Will Make You Rethink Neanderthal History

Neanderthal Ritual and Ceremony

Ritual and ceremony do not survive; the Neanderthals left no written records, and very little other visual evidence of their existence. They built no temples that exist, even in the most minimal way, nor did they leave behind legends and myths. Nonetheless, modern archaeology has found evidence of ritual and ceremony in the lives of the Neanderthals of Europe and the Middle East. In 1956, several Neanderthal skeletons were discovered in Shanidar, a location in Northern Iraq. A key discovery was made alongside these skeletons. The bodies were found with pollen, indicating that flowers had been picked and placed alongside the dead.

In Uzbekistan, a child’s grave was found, surrounded by animal horns and evidence of a number of small fires. Other burials show evidence of animal skulls. In at least one case, some bear bones were found in the grave, and others, showing signs that the animal had been eaten, in a nearby space. This could suggest the possibility of a funeral meal. Other Neanderthal graves have tools place on the body. It is essential to also remember that many items simply cannot survive 40,000 to 60,000 years or more of decay. Feathers, wood, baskets, and plant matter is likely to decay without leaving any evidence.

Both flowers and horns can broadly be thought of as grave goods; grave goods are anything buried with the dead. In many cases, the presence of grave goods implies a belief in a sort of afterlife. The survivors provide the dead with items to help their journey or existence in the afterlife. There is no specific way to know the religious beliefs of the Neanderthal people, but they do show signs of some form of ritual and belief.

Evidence of fires and animal slaughter around graves further support the idea that the Neanderthals engaged in rituals; at least around death and mourning. If they practiced funerary rituals, they may have engaged in other forms of ritual activity.

These 9 New Archaeological Discoveries Will Make You Rethink Neanderthal History

Modern Humans and Neanderthal Interbreeding

Improved understanding of genetics has provided a great deal of information about the human body, and about human history. One of the most surprising discoveries in the understanding of the human genome is one source of some of that genetic material. A small percentage of modern humans show evidence of one particular type of ancient genetic material; Neanderthal genes. Non-African modern humans have between one and four percent Neanderthal DNA; early modern humans had significantly more Neanderthal DNA, around six to nine percent. It is important to remember that Neanderthals did not evolve in, and never lived in Africa; those individuals with only African origins cannot, therefore, have Neanderthal DNA.

There are two types of DNA in the body; nuclear DNA and mtDNA. MtDNA is found in the mitochrondria, but not the nucleus of the cell. Neanderthal DNA only appears in the nuclear DNA of modern humans, but not in the mtDNA. The reasons for this are not well-understood.

In addition to not understanding how the genetics passed from Neanderthal to human, science and archaeology have provided little information about the specifics of interbreeding. Neanderthals, while quite similar to humans, had some definite differences, including a lack of language. Biology and genetics has provided a few answers.

Individuals born as the result of breeding between a modern human and a Neanderthal were clearly healthy enough to survive to adulthood and breed themselves. If they had not, their genes would not have survived into the modern world. They were not sterile as a result of cross-breeding, nor did they consistently die young. In addition, they must have been relatively accepted by their group; survival would not have been likely without the help of others.

Some of the genes associated with the Neanderthal genome in modern humans have to do with structure and regulation; however, the expression of genes, or phenotypes, do also shed some interesting light. A study of the Neanderthal genome suggests, for instance, that the Neanderthals were, at least in part, fair skinned and red haired.

Modern humans did not only breed with Neanderthals, but also with other early human species, including the Denisovans. These species, now extinct, survive in small ways in our own DNA.

These 9 New Archaeological Discoveries Will Make You Rethink Neanderthal History
An example of where neanderthals may have lived. Wikimedia.

The Last Neanderthals

The last Neanderthals were pushed into the borders of their former territory. Conditions in Europe had changed dramatically. The Neanderthals evolved in a frigid environment, during an Ice Age. As the environment and climate warmed, the skills that had so well-served them for thousands of years became less useful. In addition, there was a new predator on the scene in Europe; homo sapiens. Modern humans or homo sapiens had several advantages over the Neanderthals. Homo sapiens had language and more complex tools. They were well-adapted for traversing long distances, with long limbs and bodies that could walk for hours. Less well-adapted to the cold with leaner and slimmer builds, modern humans required less food than Neanderthals.

Several locations have been suggested as the home of the final groups of Neanderthals; these include Gibraltar and Byzovaya, located in a sub-Arctic region of Russia. At the site in Byzovaya, significant numbers of stone tools and butchered mammoth bones, dating to around 33,000 years ago, suggest a population of Neanderthals lasting significantly longer than those in central Europe. The tools found at the site are similar to those found at other Neanderthal sites, and distinct from those associated with modern humans; however, Neanderthal remains have not been found at the site.

Gibraltar is home to one of the most important sites for Neanderthal archaeology in the world. One site, called Gorham’s Cave, is 32,000 years old. Excavations at Gorham’s Cave began in 1989, following the discovery of two Neanderthal skulls and continue today; however, many other caves in Gibraltar show evidence of Neanderthal habitation and life. The cave contains not only Neanderthal remains, but also evidence of habitation, including charcoal, and patterns of incised lines on the cave walls. While more complex examples of Neanderthal creativity and art have been found since Gorham’s Cave, these incised lines, forming a sort of hashtag pattern, were among the first indications of complex thought among the Neanderthal people.

The remote nature of these sites suggests that climate and new populations of modern humans may have forced the last groups of Neanderthals out of central Europe; however, the two sites are quite different. At the site of Byzovaya, conditions would have been cold, snowy, and harsh. Food supplies would have likely been limited. On the other hand, Gibraltar had a much warmer climate and access to more varied foods.

It is important to note that radiocarbon dating is considered to be much less accurate for more recent dating, particularly dates after 40,000 years ago, so the dates associated with the last of the Neanderthals may be somewhat less accurate than earlier dates.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Neanderthal Artists Make Oldest-known Cave Paintings.”

“Neanderthal Burials Confirmed as Ancient Ritual.” Ker Than, National Geographic. December 16, 2013.

“What Does It Mean to Be Human?” Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. January 3, 2017.

“Neanderthals Made a Last Stand at Subarctic Outpost.” John Roach, National Geographic. May 15, 2011.