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Tidy Neanderthals? Study examines their use of living space

Dec. 3, 2013
Courtesy of the University of Colorado Denver
and World Science staff

Ne­an­der­thals or­gan­ized their liv­ing spaces in ways that today’s peo­ple would rec­og­nize as fa­mil­iar, sci­en­tists say. The find­ing sug­gests new si­m­i­lar­i­ties be­tween mod­ern hu­mans and Ne­an­der­thals, our close evo­lu­tion­ary cous­ins who died out an esti­mated 30,000 years ago.

“We found that Ne­an­der­thals did not just throw their stuff eve­ry­where but in fact were or­gan­ized and pur­pose­ful when it came to do­mes­tic space,” said Ju­lien Riel-Salvatore, an an­thro­po­l­o­gist at the Uni­vers­ity of Col­o­rad­o Den­ver and lead au­thor of the stu­dy.

Archaeolo­gists probe a Nean­der­thal site at Ri­paro Bom­bri­ni, Ita­ly. (Cre­dit: Fa­bio Ne­grino)


The find­ings, pub­lished in the lat­est issue of the Ca­na­di­an Jour­nal of Ar­chae­o­lo­gy, in­di­ca­te that Ne­an­der­thals butch­ered, made tools and gath­ered round the fire in dif­fer­ent parts of their shel­ters. 

The sci­en­tists in­ves­ti­ga­ted Ri­paro Bom­brini, a col­lapsed rock shel­ter in north­west Italy where both Ne­an­der­thals and, lat­er, early hu­mans lived for thou­sands of years. The study fo­cused on the Ne­an­der­thal ev­i­dence, with a view to lat­er com­par­ing the two groups’ habits.

The site com­prises three lev­els of ground at­trib­ut­ed to Ne­an­der­thals. Sci­en­tists found that the top lev­el was a “task site” where the Ne­an­der­thals could kill and pre­pare game. The mid­dle lev­el was a long-term base camp; the bot­tom lev­el, a shorter-term res­i­den­tial base camp.

Riel-Salvatore and his team found many an­i­mal re­mains in the rear of the top lev­el, sug­gest­ing lots of butcher­ing there. They found ev­i­dence of use of ochre, a pig­ment, in the back of the shel­ter. “We are not sure what it was used for,” Riel-Salvatore said. “Ne­an­der­thals could have used it for tan­ning hides, for glu­ing, as an an­ti­sep­tic or even for sym­bol­ic pur­pos­es.”

In the mid­dle lev­el, with the dens­est traces of hu­man oc­cupa­t­ion, ar­ti­facts were dis­trib­ut­ed dif­fer­ently, he added; the back of the cave had a hearth near the wall that would have let the fire’s warmth cir­cu­la­te through the liv­ing ar­ea. “There are clearly few­er stone ar­ti­facts in the back of the shel­ter near the hearth,” he said. “When you make stone tools there is a lot of de­bris that you don’t want in high traf­fic ar­eas or you risk in­jur­ing your­self.”

The bot­tom lev­el is the least well known be­cause only a small part was ex­posed. Some shell­fish frag­ments al­so sug­gest the oc­cupants ate sea­food.

The find­ings are the lat­est in on­go­ing re­search by Riel-Salvatore in­di­cat­ing Ne­an­der­thals were far more ad­vanced than once thought. In an ear­li­er stu­dy, he found that they made bone tools, or­na­ments and pro­jec­tile points. He al­so co-au­thored a pa­per in­di­cat­ing that in­ter­breed­ing be­tween mod­ern hu­mans and Ne­an­der­thals may have led to the ultima­te de­mise of the lat­ter, out­num­bered. Still, their genes make up be­tween one and four per­cent of to­day’s hu­man ge­nome, es­pe­cially among Eu­ro­peans, he said.


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Neanderthals organized their living spaces in ways that people would recognize as familiar, scientists say—a finding that suggests new similarities between the two close cousins. “We found that Neanderthals did not just throw their stuff everywhere but in fact were organized and purposeful when it came to domestic space,” said Julien Riel-Salvatore, an anthropologist at the University of Colorado Denver and lead author of the study. The findings, published in the latest edition of the Canadian Journal of Archaeology, indicate that Neanderthals butchered animals, made tools and gathered round the fire in different parts of their shelters. The scientists investigated Riparo Bombrini, a collapsed rock shelter in northwest Italy where both Neanderthals and, later, early humans lived for thousands of years. The study focused on the Neanderthal evidence, with a view to later comparing the two groups’ habits. The site comprises three levels of ground attributed to Neanderthals. Scientists found that they used different areas for different activities. The top level was a “task site” – likely a hunting stand—where they could kill and prepare game. The middle level was a long-term base camp; the bottom level, a shorter-term residential base camp. Riel-Salvatore and his team found many animal remains in the rear of the top level, suggesting lots of butchering there. They found evidence of use of ochre, a pigment, in the back of the shelter. “We are not sure what it was used for,” Riel-Salvatore said. “Neanderthals could have used it for tanning hides, for gluing, as an antiseptic or even for symbolic purposes.” In the middle level, with the densest traces of human occupation, artifacts were distributed differently, he added; the back of the cave had a hearth near the wall that would have let the fire’s warmth circulate through the living area. “There are clearly fewer stone artifacts in the back of the shelter near the hearth,” he said. “When you make stone tools there is a lot of debris that you don’t want in high traffic areas or you risk injuring yourself.” The bottom level is the least well known because only a small part was exposed. Some shellfish fragments also suggest the occupants ate seafood. The findings are the latest in ongoing research by Riel-Salvatore indicating Neanderthals were far more advanced than once thought. In an earlier study, he found that they made bone tools, ornaments and projectile points. He also co-authored a paper indicating that interbreeding between modern humans and Neanderthals may have led to the ultimate demise of the latter, outnumbered. Still, their genes make up between one and four percent of today’s human genome, especially among Europeans, he said.