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How to Think Like a Neandertal

Wynn, Thomas, Coolidge, L. Frederick
Oxford University Press



Neandertals spent their daily lives in very small face-to-face groups, which are groups of individuals in more or less direct contact, if not physically, then within eyesight or hearing. Field studies of nonhuman primates have revealed a large array of solutions to the problem of how many individual primates can congregate at one time, and the factors controlling face-to-face group size are both ecological and reproductive. Male orangutans spend most of their time alone, while savanna baboons often live and travel in large troops of more than a hundred individuals of all ages and sexes. Modern human hunter-gatherers, however, are not so diverse in terms of group size. A hunter-gatherer group is typically made up of a number of families, consisting of a man, a woman, their offspring, and often parents or siblings. The fami­lies are usually related to one another by blood or marriage (or in a pinch, "fictive" kinship, as when in Western culture we refer to a close family friend by the term "aunt" or "uncle") and also usually have social ties to individu­als in other face-to-face groups. The total number of individuals varies from perhaps thirty for a small face-to-face group to two hundred for a very large one. Often hunter-gatherer face-to-face groups will join together for part of the year with related groups, a pattern determined largely by ecological factors. We emphasize simple size of groups here because that is a social factor that we can detect in the archaeological record. So what about Neandertals?

Lazaret Cave is located near Nice on the French Riviera and was used by Neandertals during a cooler interval toward the beginning of the next-to-last glacial period. The cave itself is located about 100 meters above and 500 meters back from the coast of the Mediterranean. It is a long, narrow cave running into the mountainside, with an area of slightly over 300 square meters. The Neandertal occupation area covered only about 35 square meters (about 350 square feet) near the mouth of the cave. Archaeologists directed by Henri de Lumley carefully excavated this living area, recording the precise location of every bone, stone flake, and bit of charcoal, exposing a pattern of debris that reflects Neandertal activities in the cave. As is apparent in Figure 4-1, the Neandertals invested time and energy in rearranging rocks on the cave floor. They moved large rocks from the living area and piled them along the periphery. De Lumley has argued that these rocks must have anchored some kind of wall or windbreak, but many archaeologists are skeptical because there are no postholes, discolored columns of earth that mark the locations of decayed wooden posts. What is clear is that Neandertals did improve their living space, if only to remove inconvenient rocks. They also built two fires against the cave wall (more on the fires later). Stone knapping debris is lit­tered throughout, as are broken-up animal bones, but the most curious finds are the remains of small marine mollusks. They were too small to have been a food source, so what were they doing in a cave 100 meters above the beach? De Lumley suggests, reasonably, that they were carried in on seaweed that Neandertals used for bedding, and he notes the presence of fox and wolf foot bones as evidence of the hides used to cover the bedding.

The clearest implication deriving from the remains at Lazaret is that this Neandertal face-to-face group was very small, probably in the range of five to ten people. If anything, Lazaret is large for a Neandertal cave occupation. The occupation area in the Spanish site of Abric Romani, which we will dis­cuss in Chapter 5, covers about 150 square meters, but many well-documented Neandertal cave sites in Ice Age western Europe are smaller even than the 35 square meters of Lazaret. These were just not large spaces. It is possible, we suppose, that our sample of Neandertal sites is atypical because caves were secondary in importance. But sites in the open tell a similar tale.

Cave sites have natural limits, the walls of the cave, that constrain the extent of the habitation refuse. Often archaeological refuse extends out of the front of the cave or rockshelter, but for Neandertals this extension of the cave area was never very great. Sites in the open have fewer natural limits, and the extent of the refuse better reflects patterns of human use, but natural pro­cesses of erosion also have more opportunity to move and alter the archaeo­logical remains. Archaeologists have relatively few well-preserved open sites for Neandertals, but the few we do have present a consistent pattern. Stone tools, debris from stone knapping, and animal bone (if preservation is good) are scattered about the occupation area. There are often patches of ash or char­coal attesting to the use of fire, but rarely anything resembling a constructed fireplace. Most of the time there is little coherent pattern to the refuse. One exception to this is the Ukrainian site of Molodova 1 which was occupied about 45,000 years ago (Figure 4-2). The lateral extent of the archaeological remains at Molodova 1 is about 1,200 square meters, more than thirty times the size of Lazaret. Animal bones, stone tools, mammoth tusks, and ash litter the site. But here there seem to be some patterns: concentrations of stone tools and bone fragments bounded by denser concentrations of large bones and mammoth tusks. One of these enclosures contains the remains of a hearth. Soviet-era archaeologists argued that these were the remains of huts, but like Lazaret, there are no telltale postholes marking the position of posts. Most archaeologists think that the patterns reflect structures of some sort, probably windbreaks. Size-wise, each of the two more obvious structures is a bit larger than the one at Lazaret. If the structures and refuse at Molodova represent a single occupation, then the face-to-face group was several times larger than the one at Lazaret. If each windbreak sheltered five to ten people, and there were four such structures (a generous interpretation), then the face-to-face group included between twenty and forty people. But this is a fairly big "if." The structures could have been made by a single smaller group that returned on several occasions. As the evidence currently stands, we just don't know, though the likelihood of larger groups seems high.

Nothing in the direct archaeological remains of Neandertal sites requires that we posit face-to-face groups larger than the one at Molodova. But there is some provocative indirect evidence: sites such as La Cotte. One mam­moth could easily have supported a Molodova-size group for days. Carcasses from eleven could support many more. And recall that all of the animals had been butchered. Perhaps a bonanza such as La Cotte brought together many Neandertal face-to-face groups for the length of time that carcasses were edible.