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Neanderthals and Homo sapiens had very similar living spaces

Neanderthals, often thought to be vastly different from Homo sapiens aka modern humans, have been brought closer to us by recent archaeological findings.

These insights, unearthed in a recent study conducted by Université de Montréal and the University of Genoa and published in the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, reveal that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens shared strikingly similar methods of organizing their living spaces.

This discovery highlights the sophisticated cognitive abilities of our ancient relatives, challenging long-held beliefs about their lifestyles.

Comparison of Homo sapiens and Neanderthals

The team embarked on a detailed study of the Riparo Bombrini site, located in northwestern Italy.

Their research focused separately on two significant periods: the Protoaurignacian, associated with Homo sapiens, and the Mousterian, linked to Neanderthals. They meticulously analyzed artifacts and features from both eras.

Through meticulous mapping of stone tools, animal bones, ochre, and marine shells, significant patterns emerged in the settlement arrangements of these ancient populations.

Neanderthals and modern humans spatial analysis

Amélie Vallerand spearheaded the study, working closely with Professors Julien Riel-Salvatore from Université de Montréal and Fabio Negrino from the University of Genoa. They made a significant discovery.

This homogeneity in spatial distribution hinted at an underlying structure in how these ancient humans utilized the space.

Consequently, by quantifying clusters of artifacts, the researchers were able to infer the various activities performed by these groups, greatly reducing bias through statistical methods.

This thorough analysis accomplishes two key objectives. First, it underscores the behavioral similarities between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. Second, it sheds light on the subtle differences in their living arrangements.

Both species exhibited a structured use of space, organizing their habitats into zones of varying activity intensity. This shared spatial organization suggests a comparable cognitive capacity for planning and organization.

Neanderthals and Homo sapiens adapting together

A crucial aspect of the study’s revelations was the continuity in the site’s layout. This was evidenced by the consistent placement of inner hearths and refuse pits. Such consistency indicates a long-term understanding of space that spanned thousands of years.

Furthermore, the study highlights how both species adapted their land-use and mobility strategies. These adaptations were tailored to factors such as occupation duration, reoccupation intervals, and the nature of their activities.

Despite these parallels, the study also highlights differences in the intensity of space usage and unique distribution patterns for each species.

Neanderthals showed lower artifact densities and fewer clusters, indicative of their high mobility system in response to rapid climatic changes.

Conversely, Homo sapiens utilized a mix of short-term and long-term base camps, adapting to new territories with more established occupation patterns.

Transition from Neanderthal to Homo sapiens

The transition in the region revealed no direct contact between the two species. This period marked a rapid succession from the Late Mousterian to the Protoaurignacian techno-complex.

Subsequently, this pivotal study emphasizes the importance of direct comparison within the same archaeological sites to minimize analytical bias, providing a clearer understanding of the spatial behaviors of these ancient populations.

Ancestral past of Neanderthals and Homo sapiens

In summary, this research accomplishes two major feats. First, it demonstrates that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens shared similar spatial organization strategies. Second, it offers profound insights into their behavioral patterns.

As Vallerand poignantly remarks, “Like Homo sapiens, Neanderthals organized their living space in a structured way, according to the different tasks that took place there and to their needs.”

This study contributes to the growing body of evidence suggesting that Neanderthals were more akin to us than previously thought, further blurring the lines between them and their Homo sapiens successors.

More about Neanderthals

As discussed above, Neanderthals, a close relative of modern humans, have fascinated scientists and the public alike for decades. They lived across Europe and parts of Asia from about 400,000 to 40,000 years ago, thriving in a range of environments before mysteriously disappearing.

Physical attributes and lifestyle

Neanderthals were robustly built, with strong bodies and large brains, adapted to survive the harsh, Ice Age climates. They were skilled hunters of large animals but also consumed plants. Evidence suggests they used tools, controlled fire, and wore clothing.

Culture and social structure

Neanderthals had a rich cultural life. They created symbolic objects and may have had ritual burial practices. Sites like the Bruniquel Cave show structures made from broken stalagmites, possibly for ritual use, dating back 176,000 years. This indicates a level of social and possibly spiritual complexity.

Language and communication

While direct evidence for spoken language is elusive, the complexity of their social lives and tool-making suggests they likely had some form of communication beyond simple gestures or sounds.

Genetic legacy

The most direct connection between Neanderthals and modern humans is genetic. Many people outside Africa carry 1-2% Neanderthal DNA. This genetic legacy is not just a historical footnote; it has implications for our health and physiology, influencing traits from immune response to skin color.

Extinction and interbreeding

The reasons for the Neanderthals’ extinction are still debated, with theories including climate change, competition with Homo sapiens, and interbreeding. Indeed, rather than being replaced, it seems Neanderthals were absorbed into the modern human gene pool to some extent.

The discovery of the Denisovans, another ancient human cousin who interbred with both Neanderthals and modern humans, adds more layers to this complex history.

Changing perceptions

Once thought of as brutish, our understanding of Neanderthals has transformed. Ongoing research continues to highlight their abilities in tool-making, their capacity for innovation, and the complexity of their social networks.

In summary, Neanderthals were far more similar to us than once thought, with sophisticated cultures, technologies, and possibly even beliefs and rituals. Their legacy continues to shape our understanding of human evolution and our own place within the natural world.

The full study was published in the journal Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory.


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