Archaic Human Culture

The cultures of prehistoric humans are known mostly through the excavation of stone tools and other relatively imperishable artifacts.  The early tool making traditions are often referred to as being  paleolithic click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced (literally "Old Stone" Age).  The Oldowan click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced and Acheulian click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced tool traditions of the first humans were the simplest technologies.  As a result, they are lumped together into the Lower Paleolithic stage of cultural development.  Homo heidelbergensis continued to make tools mostly in the Acheulian tradition.  However, by 100,000 years ago or somewhat earlier, Neandertal and some other late archaic humans achieved a major leap forward in tool making with the development of the Mousterian click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced tool tradition (named for the site of le Moustier click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced in France).  This new technology was revolutionary enough to warrant being considered a distinct Paleolithic phase--the Middle Paleolithic.  Mousterian-like tool industries were employed at that time also by early modern Homo sapiens in some areas of Africa and Southwest Asia.

table showing the time frame of evolution for the different human species, tool making traditions, and stages of the Paleolithic

  Note: the Paleolithic stages began earlier and/or persisted longer in different regions.
  Subsequently, the demarcations between stages was not sharp.  The same is true
  of the transitions between hominin species.

Middle Paleolithic Technology

photo of a diorama showing a Neandertal man using percussion flaking to shape a Mousterian hand ax

   Neandertal man making
   a Mousterian hand ax

Throughout these progressive changes in tool making technologies, there was a growing sophistication in dealing with the environment, especially in connection with obtaining food.  By the Middle Paleolithic, not all sites had the same tool kits.  Specialized local tasks had resulted in tool variations among the Neandertals and their contemporaries.  Much of this variation was developed within the Mousterian tool making tradition.  This new technology was part of their successful adaptation to hunting and gathering, especially in subarctic and temperate environments of Europe during the last ice age which began about 75,000 years ago.

The Mousterian Tradition was marked by the progressive reduction in the use of large core tools, such as hand axes, as specialized flake tools became more common.  Flakes of more or less standardized shapes and sizes were often made with the Levallois click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced prepared core technique.  Blocks or cobbles of flint and other brittle fracturing rock were percussion flaked on one side until a convex "tortoise shell" shape was formed.  Then, a heavy percussion blow at one end of the core removed a large flake that was convex on one side and relatively flat on the other--i.e., a Levallois flake.  This technique was first used by archaic humans in Africa around 300,000 years ago.  It was perfected in the Mousterian Tradition by the Neandertals and some of their contemporaries.

Levallois flake making technique

drawings showing the steps of the Levallois flake making technique

Levallois flakes were preforms for making a variety of scraping, cutting, and puncturing implements.  The raw flakes were modified for particular uses by systematic percussion flaking their edges.  Mousterian flake knives made in this way were apparently used for such tasks as cutting small pieces of wood and butchering animals.  Flake scrapers had a number of uses but were particularly important in processing animal skins.  Levallois flakes were also shaped into crude unifacial spear points by Neandertals.  This was the first time in human prehistory that stone tips were affixed to spears.  It allowed greater penetration of the spears and, subsequently, more effective killing of large animals.  The fact that Neandertals were the pioneers in creating these new deadly weapons is further reason to reject the old view that they were "dull-witted, brutish, ape-like creatures."

2 photos of Mousterian Tradition stone tools--a hide scraper and a spear point

Mousterian tradition unifacial hide scraper (left) and spear point (right)  
(both were made from Levallois flakes)  

Biface core tools, such as hand axes, continued to be made in the Mousterian tradition.  However, they were much more carefully and extensively worked than in the Acheulian tradition.  Small flake scars on many of the Mousterian hand axes suggest that the craftsmen were using hammers of bone, antler, or similar relatively soft materials for better control in the final stages of shaping.

hand ax

  drawing of a Mousterian hand axe

The earliest wooden spears yet recovered came from a 380,000-400,000 year old cave site near Schöningen in Germany, presumably left by a group of late Homo heidelbergensis.  They were 6-8 ft. (1.83-2.44 m.) long and had sharpened points at both ends but were not stone tipped.  The fact that these spears were found in association with the butchered remains of 10 horses, suggests that they were hunting weapons.  Only a few wooden artifacts have been found associated with Neandertal remains.  Those that have been discovered include spears, plates, and possibly pegs.  It is likely that Neandertals made other kinds of artifacts out of wood and more perishable materials.  Their hand axes and some other stone tools very likely were used to create and modify artifacts out of these organic materials.


Other Evidence of Neandertal Culture

  drawing of a Mousterian awl
  Neandertal stone awl       

Much can be inferred about Neandertal culture from the archaeological evidence.  For instance, it is probable that in colder climates they wore some sort of protective clothing to keep warm.  In all likelihood, they used animal skins for this purpose.  There are two sources of indirect evidence for this.  First, many Neandertal sites have stone awls click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced or borers.  These were flakes that had been shaped to produce a beak-like projection on one end or side.  Awls are usually used to punch or drill holes in relatively soft materials such as wood and leather.  The second source of evidence is anatomical.  A Neandertal skull from the French site of La Ferrassie click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced has a peculiar wear pattern on its incisor teeth.  This same pattern was typical of older Inuit (or Eskimo) women in the subarctic of North America during the 19th and early 20th centuries.  In their case, it resulted from a lifetime of chewing their husband's boots every morning to soften them.  It is likely that the La Ferrassie Neandertal also was softening leather in this manner.  If Neandertals were making leather clothing of some sort, there is no evidence of what it might have looked like.  The working of skins could also have been connected with making cordage, bags, and tents.

At a number of Neandertal habitation sites, there have been found small bone fossils and unusual, colorful pebbles that were not native to the locations.  It is likely that Neandertals collected these items much as people do today and kept them as interesting objects.  Nodules of soft manganese dioxide also have been found at Neandertal sites.  These probably were used to produce a natural black pigment.  What they might have used such a pigment for is unknown.

Subsistence Patterns

Late Homo heidelbergensis, Neandertals, and other archaic human populations were primarily hunters and gatherers who exploited a wide range of food sources including meat.  This very likely required them to travel over vast territories to remain near animal herds as they seasonally migrated.

Neandertal habitation sites usually contain large quantities of bones of many different kinds of animals, including rhinoceros, bison, brown bear, and other big game.  Chemical analyses of Neandertal skeletons show that meat was a major part of their diet.  However, there has been a question as to whether they had only scavenged dead bodies or actually hunted.  That question has recently been resolved by the discovery of one of their spear points lodged in the neck bones of a butchered wild ass at a 50,000 year old site in Syria named Umm el Tlel.  Neandertals were unquestionably hunters, but their skills and technology apparently were less efficient than those of the modern Homo sapiens who eventually replaced them in Europe and Southwest Asia.  In open grasslands, Neandertals would have concentrated on hunting herd animals.  In forested areas, they would have focused on more solitary game that live there.

No doubt, Neandertals gathered wild plants for food, to make tools, and probably for medicine Fifty stone tools from two Neandertal sites in southern Ukraine (Buran Kaya III and Starosele) have been found to have microscopic residues of wood, starch, and other organic substances.  The residues on the bases of scrapers and combination spear-point/knives indicate that they were hafted on wood handles 80,000-32,000 years ago.  Residues on the working edges and sharp tips of these tools show that they were used to process both plants and animals, including waterfowl.  At two cave sites in Gibraltar (Vanguard and Gotham's Caves) there is strong evidence that 28,000 years ago Neandertals exploited marine food sources including mollusks, seals, dolphins, and fish.  In addition, they butchered large land animals including wild pigs, red deer, and ibex.  Cereal grains have been found stuck between the teeth of several Neandertals.  Some of those grains appear to have been cooked.  All of this evidence is important because it shows that Neandertals were more capable and flexible in tool making and food acquisition than had generally been thought.

There is circumstantial evidence that some Neandertals also obtained food at times by cannibalism.  At Moula-Guercy Cave in France, 120,000-100,000 year-old human bones from 6 skeletons show clear evidence of meat and marrow removal in the same way that Neandertals processed game animal carcasses.  Human cannibalism may have much greater antiquity than this.  Tim White of the University of California at Berkeley believes that there is possible cannibalism evidence at an 800,000 year old site in Spain.  This would push the earliest known date for cannibalism back to the time of early Homo heidelbergensis

It would be a mistake to assume that human flesh was a major food source for Neandertals or other archaic humans.  Cannibalism is not an efficient basis for subsistence because of the infrequency of human reproduction and our slow maturation rate.  It does not make economic sense to exploit people as a primary food source.  Cannibalism was probably more of an opportunistic activity for Neandertals and other archaic humans.

Most well known examples of cannibalism recorded by anthropologists and historians have been primarily for ritual purposes.  Among many of the indigenous cultures of New Guinea and the Amazon Basin of South America, it was a normal funerary practice--the people consumed were dead relatives.  Why Neandertals occasionally ate people remains unknown, but there is one additional intriguing piece of evidence related to this question.  At Mt. Cerceo Cave in Italy, a 57,000 year old severed Neandertal head had its base bashed in, possibly to gain access to the brains.  Apparently later, the hole was enlarged and the jagged edges smoothed by abrasion so that the skull could have been used as a bowl.

Fire Use

There is circumstantial evidence of fire use in the form of burned wood and seeds as well as fire altered stone tools at the 790,000 year old site of Gesher Benot-Ya’aqov in Israel.  The earliest convincing evidence of fire use for cooking appears at the 780,000-400,000 year old late Homo erectus site at Zhoukoudian click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced near Beijing, China and the 400,000 year old Homo heidelbergensis or early archaic human site of Terra Amata click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced near Nice on the French Mediterranean coast.  In both cases the evidence is primarily in the form of food refuse bones that were apparently charred during cooking.  In addition, there is possible evidence of simple fire hearths at Terra Amata.  Unfortunately, there still is not sufficient evidence at any of these sites to say conclusively that there was controlled fire in the sense of being able to create it at will.  However, by 100,000 years ago, there is abundant evidence of regular fire use at Neandertal sites.  By that time, they evidently were able to create fires when they wished to, and they used them for multiple purposes.  It is not known how Neandertals started fires, but it is generally assumed that their method involved striking flint with iron pyrite nodules in order to produce sparks.  It has also been suggested that they probably conserved fire and carried it from place to place when possible.

Harnessing fire would have given Neandertals and other archaic humans distinct advantages.  It would have provided significant protection from cold winter weather in temperate and subarctic regions.  It would have helped keep predators away from camp sites at night.  Cooking would have helped breakdown cellulose in plant foods which would have made them more digestible.  Cooking meat would have helped kill microbial parasites that wild animals often harbor.  Fire probably also would have been a focal point for social gatherings.


There is abundant evidence that Neandertals regularly occupied the mouths of caves and rock shelters in Europe and Southwest Asia.  Their openings often faced to the south, providing greater exposure to the sun's light and warmth.  It is not surprising that they were selected for habitation since this orientation would have been an advantage, especially during the cold ice age winters.  It is unlikely that Neandertals often ventured deep into large caves since those areas are extremely dark, dangerous, and lack food as well as wood for fuel.  However, some Neandertals did leave artifacts hundreds of feet into Bruniquel Cave in Southern France 47,600 years ago.  Concentrated smoke residues high on the walls of that cave suggest that Neandertals were using torches for light. 

Neandertals were not only "cave people".  They also regularly created open-air camps with temporary shelters.  It is likely that these shelters were most often brush and branch lean-tos and simple tents made with animal skins, though no direct evidence of their construction has been found.  However, there is evidence that Neandertals occasionally made ring-shaped enclosures out of mammoth bones.  One such enclosure, dating to at least 44,000 years ago, was found in Moldova, Ukraine.  It consists of 116 mammoth bones and tusks laid out to encircle a 131 ft² (40 m²) area in which parts of mammoths and other animals were butchered, cooked, and eaten.  Whether or not there were wood or brush structures within this circle is not known.

Burial of their Dead

At the early archaic human site of Atapuerca in Spain, there is evidence of the intentional storing of bones from at least 32 people in a cave chamber by as early as 300,000 years ago.  This behavior suggests a belief that dead humans are not the same as other animals.   By 90,000 years ago, several Neandertal cave sites provide the first reasonably good evidence of intentional burial of their dead.  They presumably buried relatives and friends in shallow graves dug into the soft midden soil of their living areas at the mouths of caves and rock shelters.  Usually the bodies were flexed in a fetal position.  Frequently, the bones were stained with hematite click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, a rust-red iron ore.  It is likely that the bodies were either sprinkled with hematite powder or the powdered pigment was mixed with a viscous liquid medium, such as vegetable seed oil or animal fat, and painted on the bodies.  In nearly half of the 33 known Neandertal burials, stone tools and/or animal bones were found in the graves.  Not all paleoanthropologists agree that these objects were intentionally placed there in funerary rites.  If they were, however, it implies that the Neandertals were trying to prepare the dead for what was ahead of them.  In the case of a burial in Shanidar click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced Cave, Northern Iraq, there may have been even more elaborate ritual activity.  Apparently, the body of a man was placed on pine boughs in the grave and flowers from 8 different species (including hyacinths, daisies, hollyhocks, and bachelor's buttons) were sprinkled on top.  It is difficult to account for such activity by Neandertals unless it is assumed that they believed in some sort of afterlife.  If they thought that their dead relatives and friends were only food or garbage, it is highly unlikely that they would have carefully buried them in this way.

Neandertals also buried the heads of cave bears (Ursus spelaeus) in at least two caves in Western Europe.  At 12 feet tall standing upright, these now extinct animals were larger than any bear species today.  These paramount carnivores evidently hunted the same animals that the Neandertals did, and they probably would have considered people to be food as well.  Cave bears no doubt engendered considerable fear and respect as powerful, dangerous creatures.  Therefore, it is not surprising that at Regourdou Cave in Southern France, the Neandertals dug a rectangular pit, lined it with stones, and buried at least 20 hematite covered cave bear skulls.  The cache was intentionally capped with a large stone slab.  A similar cave bear head burial pattern was found at Drachenloch Cave in Switzerland.

Language Capability

  drawing of a human head cross-section showing the brain with Broca's and Wernicke's areas highlighted
Anatomical features related to human speech

The Neandertal ritual burial of their own dead implies a belief in an afterlife.  This is basically a rudimentary religious concept.  Likewise, the ritual burial of cave bear trophy heads is consistent with a supernatural belief system.  The transmission of such beliefs from generation to generation very likely required a spoken language.  Similarly, their tool making skills and other technical knowledge would suggest some sort of sophisticated communication. 

Since the Neandertal brains had speech centers that were as large as our own (Broca's and Wernicke's areas), it is reasonable to assume that they were capable of language.  The modern human variant of the FOXP2 gene has been found recently in the bones of two Neandertals from Northern Spain.  This allele of the gene is associated with the ability to comprehend grammar and to control the mouth movements necessary to produce words.  The implication is that Neandertals could comprehend and produce something like modern speech.  The shape and position of the horseshoe-shaped hyoid bone in the neck of Neandertals was essentially the same as in modern humans.  This has important implications for speech because the hyoid bone supports muscles in the jaw, tongue, and larynx.  Its high location makes it possible to produce the extraordinarily wide range of human vocal sounds.  However, since Neandertal mouths and nasal cavities were somewhat different in shape from our own, there is a question as to whether they would have been able to produce all of the vowels and consonants that we use today.  Based on this chain of evidence, the current consensus among paleoanthropologists is that the Neandertals probably did have spoken language, though it may have sounded a bit odd to our ears.

Some researchers have proposed that surface features of Homo heidelbergensis brains also point to the ability to use and produce speech.  However, this is not as well supported by evidence as it is for Neandertals.

NOTE:  Modern and relatively modern humans, such as Neandertals, are the only primates known to have their hyoid bone high in the neck.  While this helps us produce a far wider range of vocal sounds, it also allows us to more readily choke on food and suffocate because it allows the entrances to both the trachea and the esophagus to be open at the same time.  The fact that nature selected for this potentially disadvantageous trait suggests that the evolutionary advantage of speech was very important.

Social Support Networks

It is now becoming clear that the Neandertals had cultures and social organizations developed to the point that community members unable to provide for themselves were fed and cared for.  The La Chapelle-aux-Saints man lived to well beyond the normal life expectancy of 30-35.  He was 40-50 years old and had severe crippling arthritis that would have made walking difficult.  In addition, he would have been limited to soft foods, or other people chewed his food for him, because he only had 2 remaining teeth.  It is likely that his last years were made possible only because others were compassionate and provided food and protection for him.  The same pattern of group support for those unable to take care of themselves was found at Shanidar Cave.  The man who had been so carefully buried there in a ritual manner had major orthopedic problems.  Crushing injuries earlier in life resulted in multiple broken bones.  This apparently caused degenerative joint disease, the withering of one of his arms, and blindness in one eye.  Like the La Chapelle-aux-Saints man, he would have been severely handicapped, yet he lived 30-45 years.  To do this, he must have had considerable family and community support.


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Copyright © 1999-2012 by Dennis O'Neil. All rights reserved.
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