Evidence of Smart, Jewelry-Making Neanderthals Is Challenged

By Andrew Moseman | October 19, 2010 2:25 pm

neandertal220Over the past few years, studies have chipped away at the old-fashioned stereotype of dense and dumb Neanderthals. Archaeological excavations suggested the hominids made tools and weapons, fashioned jewelry, or possessed other mental faculties some presumed only early humans to have.

The Neanderthal renaissance may be in danger. For a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week, radiocarbon dating expert Thomas Higham tested one of the most important Neanderthal sites in the world—Grotte du Renne in France—and found that all is not well in dating the artifacts that some archaeologists have connected to Neanderthals.

The key finding is that as you dig down through the layers of sediment in the Grotte du Renne, the age of the remains does not increase as you would expect. Instead, the ages of the different objects are all over the place, suggesting that remains from different eras have got mixed up together. [New Scientist]

The problem, then, is that if you find jewelry buried at the same level as Neanderthals who lived, say, 40,000 years ago, the mixing means you can’t be sure those ornaments or tools or other artifacts actually belonged to the Neanderthals, or were created by them.

Grotte du Renne isn’t the world’s only great Neanderthal site, but its historical extent had made it invaluable to scientists and one of the most important sites for finding that support Neanderthal tool- or jewelry-making.

The Grotte du Renne was excavated between 1949 and 1963 by the late French prehistorian André Leroi-Gourhan, who found 15 levels of hominid occupation ranging from about 45,000 to 28,000 years ago. This period includes the overlapping occupation of Europe by Neandertals, who show up about 130,000 years ago and disappear no later than 30,000 years ago, and modern humans, who arrived in Europe between 45,000 and 40,000 years ago and stayed for good. [ScienceNOW]

Can the site’s legacy be saved? Other paleoarchaeologists who’ve worked Grotte du Renne—or simply sparred a lot with Higham—dispute that the new study throws everything that’s been done there into question. In addition, Jean-Jacques Hublin says, Higham’s team couldn’t dispute one thing: the age of the Neanderthal bones themselves. Higham’s analysis was done on things like bone tools.

Hublin also pointed out that Higham’s team wasn’t able to calculate ages for the Neanderthal bodies found at Grotte du Renne, because the tooth and bone samples required for the analysis would be destroyed during the carbon-dating process. Perhaps the Neanderthal remains would have registered as the same age as the disputed artifacts, he said. “The only way to address these questions is to directly date the [Neanderthal] remains,” Hublin said. [Los Angeles Times]

Related Content:
80beats: Crafty & Clever Neanderthals Made Jewelry 50,000 Years Ago
80beats: Did Spear-Throwing Humans Kill Neanderthals?
80beats: Controversial Study Suggests Early Humans Feasted on Neanderthals
80beats: Rough Draft of the Neanderthal Genome is Complete
DISCOVER: Respect Your Elders, Human!

Image: Wikimedia Commons / Thomas Ihle

  • cray

    They were stupid because they watched Glenn Beck.

  • http://tispaquin.blogspot.com Doug Watts

    Christ, this blog is 19th century racism at its worst. Who cares who made the jewelry, unless you’re a bigot?

  • Daniel J. Andrews

    “This blog” or this article? I suspect you meant the latter. Either way, disagree and puzzled by your comment.

    Who made what or who did what is an important part of archaeology. Knowing what type of culture produced what type of spearpoint or pottery provides a useful way of dating sites or learning what other cultures they interacted/traded with. Google “pottery + archaeology”, or “Clovis spearpoints” to see just how much information can be derived from these things.

    Determining which culture/people made which artifact isn’t racism even by extreme definition. It’s science.

    Edit to add: perhaps the title “Evidence of Smart…etc” is where you gained your impression? It should read “Evidence of Jewelry-Making Neanderthals is Challenged” rather than use the value judgment “smart”. (lack of evidence for jewelry making doesn’t mean they weren’t smart any more than making jewelry indicates they were smart)

  • Jim King

    Doug Watts’ reply is pretty bizarre. Racism? What? And, yeah, as Daniel said it does matter who made the jewelry.

  • Amanda

    The title is misleading. As someone has already commented just because they didn’t make jewelry doesn’t mean they wern’t smart.
    Unfortunatly some newspapers have headlined this news with the usual Neanderthals were dumb stance.
    As far as I’m aware from reading various pieces of evidence, they were intelligent. They may well have thought differently but that doesn’t make them stupid. A lack of art also doesn’t mean a lack of intelligence. Besides what Neanderthals considered art might of been very different to what we consider is art.
    More research is needed and difficult as it is scientists should try and convince the media to stop using the dumb lable for Neanderthals and other hominids.

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