CHICAGO—Neandertals have long been portrayed as dumb brutes. But a growing body of evidence hints that these extinct humans were much savvier than previously thought. The results of a new study presented here last week at the annual meeting of the Paleoanthropology Society bolster that view, and suggest that, in fact, Neandertals acted in much the same way as early modern humans.

To compare the behavior of Neandertals and early moderns, paleoanthropologist Bruce Hardy of Kenyon College studied artifacts from a site in southwestern Germany called Hohle Fels. The site contains several levels of archaeological remains. One of these levels dates to between 36,000 and 40,000 years ago and contains tools manufactured in the Mousterian cultural tradition associated with Neandertals. Another comprises items that are 33,000 to 36,000 years old and are made in the Aurignacian style associated with early modern humans.

What makes Hohle Fels ideal for comparing Neandertal and modern human behavior is that both groups lived under comparable climate and environmental conditions at this locale (cold temperatures and open habitat). They also had the same prey animals available to them, such as reindeer and horse.

Hardy examined the Mousterian and Aurignacian implements under a microscope, looking at their wear patterns and searching for residues from the substances with which the tools came into contact. He found that although the modern humans created a larger variety of tools than did the Neandertals, the groups engaged in mostly the same activities. These activities include using tree resin to bind stone points to wooden handles, employing stone points as thrusting or projectile weapons, crafting implements from bone and wood, butchering animals and scraping hides.

What this means, Hardy says, is that form and function are not linked. “You don’t need a grapefruit spoon to eat a grapefruit,” he told Perhaps Neandertals did not bother inventing additional tool types because they were able to get the job done just fine without them.
“Neandertals stuck around for 150,000 years,” Hardy notes. “That’s not a species that doesn’t know what it’s doing.”

Yet if Neandertals were so capable, why did they ultimately disappear? “We don’t really know,” Hardy admits. But he doesn’t think that modern humans killed them off.  It could just be that modern humans had a slight reproductive advantage that, over thousands of years, allowed their population to swamp the Neandertal one.

Photo of Bruce Hardy courtesy Kenyon College