Apr 6, 2009 07:30 AM in Archaeology & Paleontology
How similar was Neandertal behavior to that of modern humans?
By Kate Wong in 60-Second Science Blog
CHICAGO—Neandertals have long been portrayed as dumb brutes. But a
growing body of evidence hints that these extinct humans were much
savvier than previously thought. The results of a new study presented
here last week at the annual meeting of the Paleoanthropology Society
bolster that view, and suggest that, in fact, Neandertals acted in
much the same way as early modern humans.
To compare the behavior of Neandertals and early moderns,
paleoanthropologist Bruce Hardy of Kenyon College studied artifacts
from a site in southwestern Germany called Hohle Fels. The site
contains several levels of archaeological remains. One of these levels
dates to between 36,000 and 40,000 years ago and contains tools
manufactured in the Mousterian cultural tradition associated with
Neandertals. Another comprises items that are 33,000 to 36,000 years
old and are made in the Aurignacian style associated with early modern
What makes Hohle Fels ideal for comparing Neandertal and modern human
behavior is that both groups lived under comparable climate and
environmental conditions at this locale (cold temperatures and open
habitat). They also had the same prey animals available to them, such
as reindeer and horse.
Hardy examined the Mousterian and Aurignacian implements under a
microscope, looking at their wear patterns and searching for residues
from the substances with which the tools came into contact. He found
that although the modern humans created a larger variety of tools than
did the Neandertals, the groups engaged in mostly the same activities.
These activities include using tree resin to bind stone points to
wooden handles, employing stone points as thrusting or projectile
weapons, crafting implements from bone and wood, butchering animals
and scraping hides.
What this means, Hardy says, is that form and function are not linked.
“You don’t need a grapefruit spoon to eat a grapefruit,” he told
ScientificAmerican.com. Perhaps Neandertals did not bother inventing
additional tool types because they were able to get the job done just
fine without them.
“Neandertals stuck around for 150,000 years,” Hardy notes. “That’s not
a species that doesn’t know what it’s doing.”
Yet if Neandertals were so capable, why did they ultimately disappear?
“We don’t really know,” Hardy admits. But he doesn’t think that modern
humans killed them off. It could just be that modern humans had a
slight reproductive advantage that, over thousands of years, allowed
their population to swamp the Neandertal one.
Photo of Bruce Hardy courtesy Kenyon College at