Symbolic Thought in Neandertals:
A Preponderance of Evidence
By Brendan Bombaci
This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
There has long been a debate as to whether Neandertals have had modern human culture, and thereby symbolic thought. They are said by many to have shared only the pre-Aurignacian, Mousterian tool industry with Homo sapiens. The Aurignacian has been considered a more advanced industry with specialized blades, and, found with Homo sapiens, representative of advanced thought. Recently added to Neandertal repertoire, however, are blades from the Chatelperronian industry and tool kits from others including the Protoaurignacian. No less, Aurignacian finds, also inclusive of symbolic artifacts (figurines, jewelry, etc.) are not always associated with modern humans, and similar symbolic artifacts have also been found in the Mousterian Neandertal context, one bone flute and 11 redated Spanish cave painting sites, respectively. Observations of symbolism and intent in primate play, Dunbar’s Social Brain Hypothesis, archaeological evidence of group tactical hunting, and anatomical and genetic characteristics, altogether show a high likelihood that Neandertals had language similar to humans. Such language is different from primate language in that it is an open call system whereby particular sounds can mean different things in different contexts, and are not solely used for one situation or meaning; it is thereby symbolic. Although Homo sapiens occupation in England has been pushed back to 42-44ky BP, and in Southeastern Italy to 43-45ky BP, possibly hinting that they culturally influenced Neandertals, I argue that the prevailing evidence suggests Neandertals had cognition on par with modern man and therefore did not die out due to either ill preparation for climate change or defeat by a “better” culture.
Blade technology and symbolism, via inscription, painting, burials, or ornaments, have been the widely proclaimed hallmarks of the Upper Paleolithic and thereby anatomically modern humans, AMH (Roebroeks 2008:919). There is an apparent technological industry transition between 40-30kya, from the Neandertal-only Middle Paleolithic Mousterian tradition to transitional ones that seem to lead to the Upper Paleolithic Aurignacian (Roebroeks 2008:918). Many have attributed that industry as only relative to Homo sapiens because of human remains (and tentatively, at the time of their discovery, no Neandertal remains) associated to a small portion of myriad Aurignacian contexts and because the transition period marks the gradual decline of Neandertal habitation sites. Some say this evidently suggests that Homo sapiens ousted Neandertals with a more-advanced cognitive power (Wolpoff et al. 2004).
However, there is now evidence from two sites in France that a special blade tool was being manufactured by supposedly “Middle Paleolithic” Chatelperronian Neandertals (Straus 2005:55). Decorations have been found on Chatelperronian bone awls, a type of tool which is implicitly associated with intensive planning (for time-consuming tailoring, e.g.), both aspects suggesting that “far from being an intrusive behavior, poorly assimilated and limited to a few bartered objects, symbolism permeates all aspects of Chatelperronian life” (Wolfpoff et al. 2004:537). Due to its specialized style, the Chatelperronian has been argued to be a tool industry with no relation to Cro-Magnons at all and (Roussel 2013). Due to modern redating methods, and reviews of recognizable mixed industry variances in tool types between assemblages, including those with both Mousterian and Upper Paleolithic types, the creation of the Aurignacian complex is in the process of being partially credited to Neandertals in general (Jankovic et al. 2006:461, 463-4). Indeed, the definition of particular assemblages as representative of certain industries is fallible, as “pattern searches on the commonly accepted archaeological monitors of human adaptation [...] have consistently shown a temporal and spatial mosaic wherever the transition interval is recorded” (Wolpoff 2004:537). The Bachokirian, Bohunician, and Protoaurignacian are now being tentatively accepted as proxies for Neandertal presence (Roebroeks 2008:923).
One red quartz Acheulean biface, the likes of which have not been seen anywhere else, found in an apparently ritualistic burial context, could be proof of symbolism as far back as 400kya (Carbonell and Masquera 2006), with the last common ancestor of Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis, that is, Homo heidelbergensis. That such symbolism would not carry forth with both ancestral lineages is preposterous, but this assertion has been scrutinized. New archaeological dating evidence (Higham et al. 2010) has determined that there is substantial stratigraphic mixing at Grotte du Renne and therefore that the symbolic artifacts priorly associated to Neandertals there (d’Errico et al. 1998) should now be put under more intense review. However, the same archaeological team (Higham et al. 2005) also redated the Vindija site specimens to 32kya, and found no such cross-site inferred stratigraphic mixing (Mellars 2010). This fastens the prior suggestion of Neandertal occupation before anatomically modern humans (AMHs) there and the craftsmanship of Upper Paleolithic (UP) materials found on site and likely elsewhere (Jankovic et al. 2006). Bone tools found there even have analogues in the “Mousterian” site of Divje Babe, Slovenia (Jankovic et al. 2006:462).
Recent ultrafiltered radiocarbon date retesting of Homo sapiens skeletal remains at Vogelherd place them between 3.9-5ky BP and corroborate that the Aurignacian industry there is not associated to these intrusive bones, suggesting that it was possibly Neandertals (Conard, Grootes, and Smith 2004) who carved the 31-36ky-old stylish mammoth-ivory animal figurines and báton percé that are found at levels IV and V (Conard and Bolus 2003:341). No less, a 50ky old Mousterian core with artful striations, found in Quneitra (Syria), seemingly sketching the unseen pattern of wave force from a point of percussion, may be an example of an “external information system” (d’Errico et al. 2003:21, 32) for teaching tool manufacture. Statistical analyses of raptor claw distributions and striations on them have also shown likelihood that Neandertals were using such items for symbolic purposes, at least in Italy and France (Morin and Laroulandie 2012). If such creations aren’t evidence enough of symbolic Neandertal cognition, perhaps another item from Divje Babe is: the oldest bone flute yet dated and X-ray tomography analyzed (>46ky old) – the only one in Mousterian rather than Aurignacian or later context (Tuniz 2012, Turk et al. 2006). Nobody can say now that the >42ky old bird bone flute and various human figurines found in Aurignacian context at Geissenklosterle, Germany (Higham et al. 2012) are certainly Homo sapiens creations.
Paul Mellars (2010) displays some apparent bias in favor of the artless Neandertal theory generally and outright accepts the preconception that the Aurignacian is only AMH relative, determined, even, (as is popular) that the Chauvet cave paintings were made by AMHs (Mellars 2006:934). This is now open for debate due to uranium series redating of paintings in 11 caves in Spain – at Altamira, Tito Bustillo, and El Castillo – (Pike et al. 2012) that put the ages of seven of them (including bison and horse figures, rectangles and ovals, hand print stencils, and anthropomorphic figures) between 29.7-41.4ky BP, spatially relative to the latest Classic Neandertal occupation at El Sidron Cave nearby (Wood et al. 2013) and temporally relative to southern Iberian sites generally (Blain et al. 2013, Jennings et al. 2011), with the rest of them at a period >5ky later of early modern human occupation of Portugal (Duarte et al. 1999, Trinkaus 2005:210). This makes it quite possible that the Neandertals in the region shared their artistic ideations and techniques with the oncoming Homo sapiens groups they interbred with. There is also a Mousterian pigment-dyed seashell find in northern Italy, dated to 47.6 cal ky BP, that may further describe the Neandertal artistic processes (Peresani et al. 2013).
The Shanidar IV Flower Burial has been reinterpreted from being very ritualistically symbolic (Sommer 1999) to mostly chance (Merlin 2003:300), due to faunalturbation. Many of the palynologically inferred plant species are medicinal, however, with one specimen found abundantly there, Ephedra, being psychoactive and amphetamine-like. As this species has been used worldwide for religious and intellectual purposes over millennia (Merlin 2003:300-2), its inclusion may renew the funeral suggestion and offer a new understanding of Neandertal ideations about death and beyond. Their ignorance of this local plant’s qualities is unlikely, as Neandertals surely tested local flora for edibility and are known to have consumed chamomile (Hardy et al. 2012:620), another bitter and non-nutritive, psychoactive plant (Viola et al. 1995).
Dunbar’s Social Brain Hypothesis works on the well-observed premise that in primates and humans, the total number of neurons and synapses as well as the relation between sizes of specific frontal lobe areas, correlate to social network sizes; and, excluding total neocortex size from this (since optical regions, which are specialized in Neandertals, do not relate to social mentalizing), fossil AMHs could keep track of 139 people and Neandertals could track 114 (Pearce, Stringer, and Dunbar 2013:5). This is obviously a limit on societal structure depth and breadth, but it is also a near-par range. Dunbar (2003:176) notes that grooming, vocal chorus bonding, social language development to faciliate large groups, and then grammatical language, were all part and parcel of social brain evolution in hominids. He has suggested that Neandertals may have only had social language (2003:177) – the third mentioned evolutionary step, but the aforementioned inferred social network sizes from 2013 suggest otherwise. Archaeological evidence of group tactical hunting (mass assemblages of near-mature reindeer and bison, implying seasonal faunal congregations) at two Late Pleistocene sites, Mauran and Les Pradelles, suggests abstract communication, “active cooperation, and a defined role for everyone: thus, a social organization” (Rendu et al. 2012). Though the speculation may be dubious, because of possibly simple systematic rejection of juveniles and elders, as well as rough dating resolution, it is still likely that such behavior was necessary to overcome their lack of both anatomical ability to run with any speed comparable to Homo sapiens in such open-air environments (Cartmill and Smith 2009:379-80) and accultured physiological ability to throw spears at any distance (Schmitt and Churchill 2003:104, 106-7, 111-2).
There are also various anatomical and genetic facts that suggest a high likelihood of symbolic Neandertal speech. Recent primate observations of symbolism in representational play (Lyn, Greenfield, and Savage-Rumbaugh 2006) bolster the notion that even 5mya, our ancestors had symbolic cognitive capacities whether or not ecological constraints could afford them extensive external development of them. Recent reconstructions of the (Kebara) Neandertal vocal tract show that they had a very modern vowel space, hyoid bone, and low laryngeal positioning (d’Errico et al. 2003:28, Wolpoff et al. 2004:535, Martinez et al. 2008). Internal and external earbone analyses have shown that early Homo sapiens and Neandertals likely acquired the same exact capacities for language reception from Homo heidelbergensis, as ear bones from the Qafzeh and Amud specimens corroborate by being within the range of human variation (Dediu and Levinson 2013:6). Their respiratory muscles were similar to modern humans, as inferred by matching thoracic vertebral canals, giving a cortical control which allows for proper breath and volume modulation required for vocal imitation and learning (Dediu and Levinson 2013:6-7). Genetic sequencing of the Vindija Neandertal has allowed us insight into the fact that Neandertals and modern humans share the same FOXP2 gene involved in speech production and comprehension (Dediu and Levinson 2013:4, Shriberg et al. 2006, Turner et al. 2013), orofacial movements (Krause et al. 2007:1), and probably meaningful gestures (Shriberg et al. 2006) and literacy (Turner et al. 2013).
I must make a few remarks regarding recent revisions on human occupation dates in Europe. Hublin (2012) notes that mineralogical ash dating techniques in tool deposit contexts have revealed “a series of initial Upper Paleolithic assemblages spread from the Levant (Emirian) to Bulgaria (Bacho-Kirian) and Moravia (Bohunician) [...that] may well document an early episode of modern colonization of [eastern] Europe as old as 50,000y” (Hublin 2012:13472, emphases added). 14C dating of Kent’s Cavern (in 1989) and Oase I specimens (in 2003) originally put the earliest human occupation of Europe at nearly 35kya (Trinkaus 2005:210), however, in 2011, “using a Bayesian analysis of new ultrafiltered bone collagen dates in an ordered stratagraphic sequence,” Higham et al. (2011) provided dates of 44.2-41.5kya for the Kent’s Cavern maxilla, and, Benazzi et al. (2011) reclassified the Grotta del Cavallo teeth from Neandertal to AMH via microtomography and associated a recent Bayesian age model redating of the shell beads on site (45-43kya) to those teeth as well. So it seems that the human population spread closer to Neandertal territory from the eastern sites, first to Italy and then England, with the latter destination suggesting possible travel through Germany and thereby Vogelherd, casting doubt yet again on the makers and owners of the artifacts there.
However, the tools from the Levant, Bulgaria, and Moravia are only presumed to be associated with Homo sapiens, based on the now-refutable Danube Corridor hypothesis (Conard, Grootes, and Smith 2004); no skeletal remains are in context. In 2008, Joris and Street published their view that these technologies are proxies for Neandertal presence (Roebroeks 2008:923). Also, the Kent’s Cavern maxilla is only relatively dated to “a small selective sample of fauna from an old and poorly executed excavation” (White and Pettitt 2012:392), so should not be thought of as an early representation of AMH occupation in western Europe. Also, even if it is early, it was only found in context with two Aurignacian blades (Higham et al. 2011:521), so its age is not associated with any truly typological assemblages, let alone uniquely symbolic artifacts. The Grotta del Cavallo inhabitant would appear to be an exception to this critique, being at the type-site for the Uluzzian industry, but the fact that only deciduous molars were measured, without reference to any other (non-present) teeth or jaw morphology, makes the conclusions highly questionable. Also, similar beads have not been found amongst other Neandertal sites, which suggests that even if AMH were using such symbols, this type of art either did not get shared with or was not interesting to other Neandertals. It too implies nothing as of yet. Especially being that the species on site was apparently making or using Aurignacian-transitional tools, it would not, i.e., discredit slightly earlier Neandertals from association with the Mousterian-context ochered shell in northern Italy. Finally, Roebroeks (2008:920) highlights difficulties in assuming much about Neandertal technological capacity and ingenuity, since there is a lack of permanent occupation sites likely due to biologically determined, ephemeral central place foraging (instead of long-distance hunting).
In light of all evidence provided that reveals the most probable reality of Neandertal symbol utilization, it is safe to assume that Neandertals did not die out due to cognitive incompetence amidst an inundation of Homo sapiens, or, therefore, due to inability to culturally adapt to climatic circumstances. Their cold-adapted bodies (Cartmill and Smith 2009:374-6) worked well enough for them to thrive in the cold let alone in refugia during glaciations (Beeton et al. 2013), undoubtedly including the most recently dramatic snap amplified by two volcanic eruptions in Italy around 40ky BP (Golovanova et al. 2010:680), which Hublin (2012) refers to for the aforementioned mineral ash relative dating of AMH presence in Europe. A study of ecocultural niche modeling (partially tainted by the assumption that the only tool industries associated to Neandertals are the Mousterian, Chatelperronian, and Bohunician) shows that populations of anatomically modern humans and Neandertals had an inverse relationship in magnitude over spatiotemporal location, suggesting that Neandertals did not disappear due to climate change but due to an influx of AMH in their territory (Banks et al. 2008). However biased the model, this may be true. One way that human DNA differs from that of Neandertals is with the gene SPAG17 which codes for the beating of sperm flagellum (Gibbon 2010:684). If a lack of this gene, or other general issues, caused Neandertals to reproduce less effectively than the Homo sapiens around them – even a 2% difference in mortality would cause their extinction in 30 generations (Roebroeks 2008:924). But there was no abrupt extinction. They didn’t really die out at all.
Neandertal survival into the Upper Paleolithic throughout Europe is becoming more and more recognized by ancient morphological (Rougier et al. 2007, Trinkaus 2005:217-222) and mtDNA mosaics (Zilhao 2006:192), and now modern nuclear DNA (Green et al. 2010) – the latter of which presents a major challenge to determinations of nonexisting Neandertal gene flow in AMH specimens after 30ky BP. If reproductive success depended upon cognitive similarity between people as it widely does today, with selfish selection for those that do not have any mental inability or disorder, e.g., we can deduce that Neandertals and Homo sapiens were very alike and attracted to each other more than sexually. This appeals to logic because of how much of a time investment is needed for the cultural admixing and acculturation that must take place during reproduction and the following parental and group cooperation implied by its success. There are likely very human – symbolic – reasons why Neandertals and Homo sapiens wished to combine legacies, and, just as Neandertals did not genetically perish, modern cultures too are a result of that relationship.
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