Almost everything of Neanderthal behaviour is controversial. From their physiology, Neanderthals are presumed to have been omnivores, but animal protein formed the majority of their dietary protein, showing them to have been apex predators and not scavengers. Some studies suggest they cooked vegetables.
The quality of stone tools at archaeological sites suggests Neanderthals were good at "expert" cognition, a form of observational learning and practice acquired through apprenticeship that relies heavily on long-term procedural memory. Neanderthal toolmaking changed little over hundreds of thousands of years. The lack of innovation was said to imply they may have had a reduced capacity for thinking by analogy and less working memory. The researchers further speculated that Neanderthal behaviour would probably seem neophobic, dogmatic and xenophobic to modern humans. A 2018 open access paper discussed, in light of recent developments in the fields of paleogenetics and paleoanthropology, whether or not Neanderthals were rational. The authors' argument focuses on the genetic evidence that supports interbreeding with Homo sapiens, language acquisition (including the FOXP2 gene), archaeological signs of cultural development and potential for cumulative cultural evolution
Few Neanderthals lived past 35.
It is not known whether Neanderthals were anatomically capable of speech, and whether they actually spoke. A once widely believed theory that the Neanderthal vocal tract was different from that of living humans, and that they hence probably could not speak, is now discredited. The only bone in the vocal tract is the hyoid, but being fragile, no Neanderthal hyoid was found until 1983, when excavators discovered a well-preserved one on Neanderthal Kebara 2, Israel. It was largely similar to that of living humans. Although the original excavators claimed that the similarity of this bone with that of living humans implied Neanderthals were anatomically capable of speech, it is not possible to reconstruct the vocal tract with information supplied by the hyoid. In particular, it does not allow to determine whether the larynx of its owner was in a low-lying position, a feature considered important in producing speech.
A 2013 study on the Kebara hyoid used X-ray microtomography and finite element analysis to conclude that the Neanderthal hyoid showed microscopic features more similar to a modern human's hyoid than to a chimpanzee hyoid. To the authors, this suggested the Neanderthal hyoid was used similarly to that in living humans, that is, to produce speech. Yet, because the authors did not compare the microscopic structure of the Kebara 2 hyoid with that of speech-hindered living humans, this result is not yet conclusive.
Although some researchers believe Neanderthal tool-making is too complex for them not to have had language, toolmaking experiments of Levallois technology, the most common Neanderthal toolmaking technique, have found that living humans can learn it in silence.
Neanderthals had the same DNA-coding region of the FOXP2 gene as living humans, but are different in one position of the gene's regulatory regions, and the extent of FOXP2 expression might hence have been different in Neanderthals. Although the gene appears necessary for language—living humans who don't have the normal human version of the gene have serious language difficulties—it is not necessarily sufficient. It is not known whether FOXP2 evolved for or in conjunction with language, nor whether there are other language-related genes that Neanderthals may or may not have had. Similarly, the size and functionality of the Neanderthal Broca's and Wernicke's areas, used for speech generation in modern humans, is debated.
In 1998, researchers suggested Neanderthals had a hypoglossal canal at least as large as humans, suggesting they had part of the neurological requirements for language. The canal carries the hypoglossal nerve, which controls the muscles of the tongue, necessary to produce language. However, a Berkeley research team showed no correlation between canal size and speech, as a number of extant non-human primates and fossilized australopithecines have larger hypoglossal canals.
Neanderthal and early anatomically modern human archaeological sites show a more simple toolkit than those found in Upper Paleolithic sites, produced by modern humans after about 50,000 BP. In both early anatomically modern humans and Neanderthals, there is little innovation in the toolkit.
Tools produced by Middle Palaeolithic humans in Eurasia (both Neanderthals and early modern humans) are known as Mousterian. These were often produced using soft hammer percussion, with hammers made of materials like bones, antlers, and wood, rather than hard hammer percussion, using stone hammers. A result of this is that their bone industry was relatively simple. They routinely made stone implements. Neanderthal tools consisted of stone-flakes and task-specific hand axes, many of which were sharp.
There is evidence for violence among Neanderthals. The 40,000-year-old Neanderthal skull of St. Césaire has a healed fracture in its cranial vault likely caused by something sharp, suggesting interpersonal violence. The wound healed and the Neanderthal survived.
Whether they had projectile weapons is controversial. They seem to have had wooden spears, but it is unclear whether they were used as projectiles or as thrusting spears. Wood implements rarely survive, but several 320,000-year-old wooden spears about 2-metres in length were found near Schöningen, northern Germany, and are believed to be the product of the older Homo heidelbergensis species.
Neanderthals used fire on occasion, but it is not certain whether they were able to produce it. They may have used manganese dioxide to accelerate the combustion of wood. "With archaeological evidence for fire places and the conversion of the manganese dioxide to powder, [it has been argued] that Neanderthals at Pech-de-l’Azé I used manganese dioxide in fire-making and produced fire on demand." MnO2 lowers the combustion temperature of wood from 350 degrees Celsius to 250 degrees Celsius and is common in Neanderthal archaeological sites.
Pendants and other jewelry showing traces of ochre dye and of deliberate grooving have also been found in one single stratigraphically disturbed Neanderthal archaeological layer, but whether these items were ever in the hands of Neanderthals or were mixed into their archaeological layers from overlying modern human ones is debated.
No claim of a deliberate Neanderthal burial is universally accepted. An interpretation of pre-Neanderthal Shanidar IV as having been ritually buried with flowers has been seriously questioned, and to Paul B. Pettitt, convincingly eliminated: "A recent examination of the microfauna from the strata into which the grave was cut suggests that the pollen was deposited by the burrowing rodent Meriones tersicus (Persian jird), which is common in the Shanidar microfauna and whose burrowing activity can be observed today".
Early studies indicated that Neanderthals were highly carnivorous and obtained most of the protein in their diet from animal sources. However, traces of fossilized plants have been extracted from Neanderthal teeth found in Belgium and Iraq suggesting they also consumed plants on occasion. There is evidence of cannibalism among Neanderthals.
Neanderthals hunted large animals, such as the mammoth. However, they are believed to have practiced cannibalism or ritual defleshing. This hypothesis was formulated after researchers found marks on Neanderthal bones similar to the bones of a dead deer butchered by Neanderthals.
Neanderthal bones from various sites (Combe-Grenal and Abri Moula in France, Krapina in Croatia and Grotta Guattari in Italy) have all been cited as bearing cut marks made by stone tools. However, the results of technological tests have revealed varied causes.
Re-evaluation of these marks using high-powered microscopes, comparisons to contemporary butchered animal remains, and recent ethnographic cases of excarnation mortuary practises have shown that perhaps this was a case of ritual defleshing.
- At Grotta Guattari, the apparently purposefully widened base of the skull (for access to the brain) has been shown to be caused by carnivore action, with hyena tooth marks found on the skull and mandible.
- According to some studies, fragments of bones from Krapina show marks similar to those on bones from secondary burials at a Michigan ossuary (14th century AD), and are indicative of removing the flesh of a partially decomposed body.
- According to others, the marks on the bones found at Krapina are indicative of defleshing, although whether this was for nutritional or ritual purposes cannot be determined with certainty.
Evidence of cannibalism includes:
- Analysis of bones from Abri Moula in France does seem to suggest cannibalism was practiced here. Cut-marks are concentrated in places expected in the case of butchery, instead of defleshing. Additionally the treatment of the bones was similar to that of roe deer bones, assumed to be food remains, found in the same shelter.
- At El Sidron in Northern Spain, scientists have found evidence pointing to the cannibalism of 12 individuals by what is hypothesized to have been a neighboring group of Neanderthals. According to Carles Lalueza-Fox of the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Barcelona, the individuals (three children aged from two to nine, three teenagers, and six adults) appear to have been "killed and eaten, with their bones and skulls split open to extract the marrow, tongue and brains." Scientists believe that the lack of any evidence of a fire makes it likely that the event happened in winter, during times when food was scarce.
Evidence indicating cannibalism would not distinguish Neanderthals from modern humans, which are known to have practiced cannibalism or mortuary defleshing (e.g., the sky burial of Tibet). It is debated whether these cuts come from Neanderthal tools or animal teeth.
Claims of art and adornment
Upon Higham et al.'s (2010) publication of new radiocarbon dates shedding doubt on the association of Châtelperronian beads with Neanderthals, Paul Mellars wrote that “the single most impressive and hitherto widely cited pillar of evidence for the presence of complex ‘symbolic’ behavior among the late Neanderthal populations in Europe has now effectively collapsed”. This conclusion, however, is controversial, and others such as Jean-Jacques Hublin and colleagues have re-dated more material and used proteomic evidence to restate the challenged association with Neanderthal.
There exists a very large number of other claims of Neanderthal art, adornment, and structures. These are often taken literally by the media as showing Neanderthals were capable of symbolic thought, or "mental equals" to anatomically modern humans. As evidence of symbolism, none of them are widely accepted, although the same is true for Middle Palaeolithic anatomically modern humans. Among many others:
- Pigmented shells from Murcia, Spain, were argued in 2009 to be Neanderthal make-up containers.
- Bird bones were argued to show evidence for feather plucking in a 2012 study examining 1,699 ancient sites across Eurasia, which the authors controversially took to mean Neanderthals wore bird feathers as personal adornments.
- Deep scratches were found in 2012 on a cave floor underlying Neanderthal layer in Gorham's Cave, Gibraltar, which some have controversially interpreted as art.
- Two 176,000-year-old stalagmite ring structures, several metres wide, were reported in 2016 more than 300 metres from the entrance within Bruniquel Cave, France. The authors claim artificial lighting would have been required as this part of the cave is beyond the reach of daylight and that the structures had been made by early Neanderthals, the only humans in Europe at this time.
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