Neanderthals may not have been as advanced as thought
2 December 2010, by Tamera Jones
Until recently, Neanderthals were thought of as dim, savage or even half-witted. That was until archaeologists chanced upon a rare find of rings, ivory pendants and pierced animal teeth, associated with Neanderthal teeth in a French cave.
The obvious conclusion was that the now extinct Neanderthals were just as advanced as humans, raising the question of why they ended up dying out.
But scientists have now discovered that the teeth and ornaments are likely to date from completely different times, because dates from bones in the same layers vary in age by as much as 28,000 years. This suggests the Neanderthals might not have been as advanced as scientists thought after all.
The results come from a three-and-a-half-year analysis of archaeological material from the Grotte du Renne cave in northern France.
Until now, the cave at Arcy-sur-Cure has provided the best evidence that Neanderthals were behaviourally modern, using symbolic ornaments and jewellery. But some archaeologists had raised concerns over the ages of the artefacts and the teeth.
'It's extremely rare to find Neanderthal bones or teeth in the same place as ornaments, which makes you wonder why it's so rare,' says Dr Thomas Higham from the University of Oxford, who led the research. 'Is it because Neanderthals didn't actually make these ornaments in the first place? Could there be a problem with this site?'
While Neanderthals had been around for around a quarter of a million years, humans started spreading across western Europe around 35,000 to 40,000 years ago.
'Neanderthals could have made these ornaments before humans arrived, or they might have copied humans around at the same time,' explains Higham.
If Neanderthals did indeed make ornaments like rings, pendants and other decorations, it suggests they had the same cognitive abilities as us.
One way to settle a debate about the age of archaeological material is to use radiocarbon dating. It's an accurate method when properly applied, but when archaeologists excavated the Grotte du Renne site back in the 50s and 60s, the technique wasn't accurate enough to conclusively date the rings, pendants and pierced teeth they found in the cave. So the debate over the ages of the objects has never really been resolved until now.
Higham, along with British and French archaeologists, used two methods to solve the problem. First they used a chemical pre-treatment to get rid of contaminants on the 60 objects they analysed. They then used an accelerator radiocarbon dating technique on the ultra clean material. They describe the approach in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Objects found in the deepest sediments in the cave should be much older than bones, antlers and ornaments in the layers higher up. 'So the dates of the objects should go from oldest in the lower layers to youngest in the upper layers,' explains Higham.
But the team found that some artefacts in the deeper layers which should have been about 38,000 years old, and which scientists had until now taken to be made by Neanderthals, were instead just 22,000 years old, suggesting they weren't made by Neanderthals at all. Thirty percent of the dates were statistical outliers in the sequence.
'It's likely that material from different layers at the site got mixed up or moved around by later inhabitants of the cave,' says Higham.
There's lots of evidence of digging into lower levels, so it's a plausible explanation.
Although Neanderthals might not have been as behaviourally or culturally advanced as modern humans, Higham is keen is stress that they were extremely well-adapted to their environment.
'They had brains as large if not larger than ours, so they certainly weren't stupid and were very capable. But the small difference in humans' ability to make and use technological tools and objects may have been what made us more competitive,' he says.
But this may not be the end of the story. 'We need to find new sites and new evidence to know what the Neanderthals were really capable of,' adds Higham.
Thomas Higham, Roger Jacobi, Michèle Julien, Francine David, Laura Basell, Rachel Wood, William Davies and Christopher Bronk Ramsey, (2010) Chronology of the Grotte du Renne (France) and implications for the context of ornaments and human remains within the Châtelperronian, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, published online before print October 18, 2010, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1007963107
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