Thursday, September 28, 2006

Warm-adapted Neanderthals in northern France

In posts published today, Alex Steenhuyse and John Hawks both link to this short article in The Independent about a new Mousterian site at Caours, France, near the shore of the Channel.

The interesting features of this specific site are its age, its geographical location and its contents. As concerns its age, it is reported to be about 125,000 years old, which puts it at the warmest moment of the last glacial cycle. As concerns its geography, it is located relatively far north, implying that Neanderthals were able to exploit northerly regions at least during those times when climate was favorable (also a conclusion of various paper in Van Andel and Davies [2003]). As concerns its contents, the site contains the bones of elephant, rhino, aurochs, wild boar, and various kinds of deer, and those apparently "show signs of having been sawn through, crushed or stripped of their meat by flint tools." This suggests that Neanderthals successfully acquired and processed these animals very early on.

The key word here is "acquired." To the "Neanderthal good" camp, this will be taken as evidence of hunting, which in turn - given the size of some of those beasties - strongly implies cooperative hunting and considerable planning depth. To the "Neanderthal bad" camp, this evidence (especially since it comes from a riverine context) will be taken as merely one more instance of Neanderthal opportunistic scavenging, with dead animals being washed down the river after dying of natural, non-human causes and the more-or-less putrefied corpses being butchered by grunting cavemen. I suspect that when the actual report for this site comes out, it will contain a detailed zooarchaeological analysis of the remains that will be used to support one or the other scenario. In the meantime, I just want to point out that the Independent article mentions specifically that the remains "include a small fragment of elephant bone, several rhinoceros teeth, and many remnants of aurochs, wild boar and several kinds of deer" (my emphasis). Maybe this will turn out to be primarily a hunting camp, with some scavenging of the largest animals? Then again, since it's unlikely folks (Neanderthal or modern) would drag a whole elephant carcass back to camp, maybe not... This is another example of people with different perspectives taking the same evidence to make it agree with what they believe. However, in this case as in any other, the empirical burden usually does agree better with some perspectives.

Another interesting feature of this article: the way it portrays Neanderthals. Contra popular tendencies, Neanderthals are not described as "evolutionary dead-ends". On the contrary, they're described as "our tough and resourceful, near-human, European predecessors" who were "known to be squat, powerful people, who had language and fire and buried their dead." That's a relatively far-cry from the descriptions of Neanderthals in the popular press over the past several years... hey, maybe reporters are finally starting to get it?


Van Andel, T. H., and W. Davies (eds.). 2003. Neanderthals and modern humans in the European landscape during the last glaciation: archaeological results of the Stage 3 Project. McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Cambridge (UK).

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