A new study from the University of Southampton reveals that Neanderthals were more culturally complex than previously thought. Evidence of two cultural traditions has appeared from Neanderthals living in what is now northern Europe from 115,000 to 35,000 years ago.
Dr Karen Ruebens from the Centre for the Archaeology of Human Origins examined 1,300 stone tools derived from 80 Neanderthal sites across France, Germany, Belgium, Britain and the Netherlands.
The investigation uncovered new evidence suggesting existence of two different hand-axe designs. One of the designs has been found in a region spanning south-western France and Britain, where hand-axes were symmetrical, triangular and heart-shaped, while the other, asymmetrically shaped bifacial knives, was discovered in modern day Germany.
An area in Belgium and the Netherlands demonstrates a transition between the two, which indicates contact between the different groups of Neanderthals. Such contact is generally difficult to identify, but has been much discussed in relation to contacts between groups of modern humans. The transition area can be viewed as a “melting pot” of ideas where groups of Neanderthals would pass through and influence one other’s designs, leaving behind more varied bifacial tools.
The results suggest that the distinct tradition of making a hand-axe was being passed on from generation to generation, long enough to become visible in the archaeological record. This is indicative of a strong propensity for social learning and lends to the stability and connectivity of Neanderthal groups.
Making stone tools was not simply opportunistic, as a lot of time and energy were invested in this effort. These tools also carry a certain degree of socio-cultural information, which does not directly contribute to their function.
Through extensive analysis, the study also shows other factors that may have influenced the different hand-axe designs. These factors included raw material availability, site functions, and the repeated reuse and sharpening of tools.
Titled, “Regional Behaviour among Late Neanderthal Groups in Western Europe: A Comparative Assessment of Late Middle Palaeolithic Bifacial Tool Variability,” the study adds a new archaeological perspective on the regionality of Neanderthal, a concept also examined in studies delving into Neanderthal skeletal and genetic features. The results of the paper have been published in the Journal of Human Evolution.