Neanderthals More Advanced Than Previously Thought: They Innovated,
Adapted Like Modern Humans, Research Shows
Model of Neanderthal man. (Credit: iStockphoto/Klaus Nilkens)
ScienceDaily (Sep. 21, 2010) — For decades scientists believed
Neanderthals developed `modern' tools and ornaments solely through
contact with Homo sapiens, but new research from the University of
Colorado Denver now shows these sturdy ancients could adapt, innovate
and evolve technology on their own.
The findings by anthropologist Julien Riel-Salvatore challenge a half-
century of conventional wisdom maintaining that Neanderthals were
thick-skulled, primitive `cavemen' overrun and outcompeted by more
advanced modern humans arriving in Europe from Africa.
"Basically, I am rehabilitating Neanderthals," said Riel-Salvatore,
assistant professor of anthropology at UC Denver. "They were far more
resourceful than we have given them credit for."
His research, to be published in December's Journal of Archaeological
Method and Theory, was based on seven years of studying Neanderthal
sites throughout Italy, with special focus on the vanished Uluzzian
About 42,000 years ago, the Aurignacian culture, attributed to modern
Homo sapiens, appeared in northern Italy while central Italy continued
to be occupied by Neanderthals of the Mousterian culture which had
been around for at least 100,000 years. At this time a new culture
arose in the south, one also thought to be created by Neanderthals.
They were the Uluzzian and they were very different.
Riel-Salvatore identified projectile points, ochre, bone tools,
ornaments and possible evidence of fishing and small game hunting at
Uluzzian archeological sites throughout southern Italy. Such
innovations are not traditionally associated with Neanderthals,
strongly suggesting that they evolved independently, possibly due to
dramatic changes in climate. More importantly, they emerged in an area
geographically separated from modern humans.
"My conclusion is that if the Uluzzian is a Neanderthal culture it
suggests that contacts with modern humans are not necessary to explain
the origin of this new behavior. This stands in contrast to the ideas
of the past 50 years that Neanderthals had to be acculturated to
humans to come up with this technology," he said. "When we show
Neanderthals could innovate on their own it casts them in a new light.
It `humanizes' them if you will."
Thousands of years ago, southern Italy experienced a shift in climate,
becoming increasingly open and arid, said Riel-Salvatore. Neanderthals
living there faced a stark choice of adapting or dying out. The
evidence suggests they began using darts or arrows to hunt smaller
game to supplement the increasingly scarce larger mammals they
"The fact that Neanderthals could adapt to new conditions and innovate
shows they are culturally similar to us," he said. "Biologically they
are also similar. I believe they were a subspecies of human but not a
The powerfully built Neanderthals were first discovered in Germany's
Neander Valley in 1856. Exactly who they were, how they lived and why
they vanished remains unclear.
Research shows they contributed between 1 and 4 percent of their
genetic material to the people of Asia and Europe. Riel-Salvatore
rejects the theory that they were exterminated by modern humans. Homo
sapiens might simply have existed in larger groups and had slightly
higher birthrates, he said.
"It is likely that Neanderthals were absorbed by modern humans," he
said. "My research suggests that they were a different kind of human,
but humans nonetheless. We are more brothers than distant cousins."
Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory
DOI: 10.1007/s10816-010-9093-9Online First™
A Niche Construction Perspective on the Middle–Upper Paleolithic
Transition in Italy
This paper presents an overview of the Middle–Upper Paleolithic
transition in Italy in light of recent research on the Uluzzian
technocomplex and on the paleoecological context of the transition.
Drawing on the realization that human niche construction can be
documented in the pre-agricultural archaeological record, niche
construction theory is used as a conceptual framework to tie together
facets of the behavioral, biological, and ecological dimensions of the
transition interval into formal models of their interaction over time
and in diverse contexts. Ultimately, this effort shows how foragers of
the transitional interval in the Italian peninsula were active agents
in shaping their evolutionary history, with consequences of some
adaptive systems being felt only much later and directing the forces
responsible for the ultimate disappearance of the Mousterian and
Uluzzian technocomplexes in favor of the proto-Aurignacian industry,
the exact nature of which clearly appears to vary on a regional level.