Rethinking Neanderthals

Neanderthals lived in Europe and Asia between about 135,000 and 35,000 years ago, after which they went extinct. For a long while they had the territory to themselves; but then, sometime between about 45,000 and 40,000 years ago, modern humans moved into Europe from Africa. At roughly the same time, Neanderthal behavior seemed to change and become more “modern”: Their stone tools became more sophisticated, they began to wear jewelry, and they started using bone tools. For many archaeologists, the timing strongly suggested that Neanderthals had copied modern human behavior. But other researchers insisted that Neanderthals had developed the behaviors before modern humans came to town.

The debate often revolved around esoteric discussions of how to interpret radiocarbon dates from sites that both Neanderthals and moderns had occupied, contamination of Neanderthal sites by modern human artifacts, and other technical details. Now, two teams of archaeologists working at Neanderthal sites in the Dordogne region of southwest France have found four sophisticated bone tools that they say are dated earlier than the first known existence of modern humans in the region. The team thinks its new study leaves little doubt that Neanderthal technical abilities have been underestimated in the past.

 

At about 50,000 years, the behavior of some Neanderthal groups was highly sophisticated, and as sophisticated as early modern human behavior of the same time range elsewhere in Europe.


Kemo D. 7

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