The Battle over Neanderthals

A reconstruction of a Neanderthal male from the Neanderthal Museum.
A reconstruction of a Neanderthal male from the Neanderthal Museum (via Wikipedia)

A NOVA documentary presented the hypothesis that Neanderthals knew how to fashion a tool, manufacture glue from birch bark, had language skills, and on top of it had ritual, art and symbolism. It turns out that this issue is not settled and there  is debate about the skill set of Neanderthals.

Where Zilhão sees a clear pattern, sceptics see uncertainties. Harold Dibble, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, is re-examining supposed Neanderthal burial sites. At one, the French cave of Roc de Marsal, he says that what seemed to be a deliberately excavated grave is actually a natural pit. At another, La Ferrassie, he sees evidence that sediments swept into the cave by water — not grieving kin — could have buried Neanderthal remains.

As for the ochre crayons, Dibble is dismissive. “You see some wear on a piece of ochre and soon you’ve got Neanderthal body painting,” he says. “What a lot of logical leaps.” He and others say that the pigment has many possible uses: as an insect repellent, a preservative for food or animal skins, an ingredient in adhesives. Even Wil Roebroeks of the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, who found evidence for ochre use as early as 250,000 years ago at a Dutch Neanderthal site7, says that Zilhão “jumps too fast from the presence of ochre to body decoration”.

Ask Dibble, Hublin and other sceptics what would persuade them that Neanderthals had minds like ours, and their answer is simple: a pattern of art or other sophisticated symbolic expression from a time when no modern humans could possibly have been around. “But I don’t think it exists,” says Hublin. [Neanderthal culture: Old masters]