Handprints on the Mirror (Living On The Edge Book 1)
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Who were the Neanderthals? But they were certainly here : squinting against sunrises, sucking lungfuls of air, leaving footprints behind in the mud, sand and snow. The business of archaeology is about summoning wraiths from the graveyards of millennia, after the vagaries of decay and erosion have done their work.
Everything begins as fragments. Yet in recent years, poring over these shards has produced a revolution in our understanding of Neanderthals. Rather, the invention of new dating techniques, analysis of thousands more fossils and artefacts, and advances in ancient DNA research have collectively revealed the extent to which the lives of Neanderthals are braided together with our own. When Western science first encountered the Neanderthals in , they were a jumble of bones — one of which was a broken skull dome. From the beginning, Neanderthals, dubbed Homo neanderthalensis , were tantalising in their incompleteness.
Shortly after, an entire skull emerged at the other end of Europe: in Gibraltar on British soil, no less, to the delight of the London intelligentsia. He suggested it be sent to his friend George Busk, who had translated the analysis of the Feldhofer bones from German. In the wake of this first flurry of discoveries, further Neanderthal specimens sprang up across Europe — until in , a nearly complete skeleton of an adult male was disinterred from the La Chapelle-aux-Saints cave in France.
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But anatomically, at least, it was no longer possible to argue that he and his kind were closer to nonhuman animals than to living people. S ocieties have long obsessed about what separates humans from nature. The question goes far deeper than surface appearances. The reality of the Neanderthals — predicted nowhere in religious texts or the science of the day — represented a profound culture shock to the mid-Victorian worldview. There was no way the world was just a few thousand years old, or that humans were fashioned wholesale from on-high.
If Genesis could not be trusted, then what could? Scientific discoveries never occur in a social vacuum. At a stroke of his pen, everyone else on the planet was demoted to a nonstandard, inferior version of humanity — identified by supposedly less advanced physiques, character and culture. The European intellectual elite were mostly blind to the possibility that Neanderthals were evidence of a common heritage for living people. These ideas have cast a long shadow over the study of Neanderthals. While the science has advanced dramatically in the past decade, popular perceptions and media coverage are still catching up.
The big picture now points to early hominins evolving in Africa before dispersing outward in waves. In Europe, Neanderthals appeared in fossil records as a distinct population more than , years ago, and went on to occupy a vast swathe of Eurasia. Then they vanished 42,, years ago. This period also witnessed the appearance in Europe of another hominin species: us, Homo sapiens. For decades, most of the scientific community believed this conjunction implied causation. Influential theories typecast them as creatures who were intrinsically antisocial, even to their own kind.
This inference stemmed from the fact that Neanderthals generally moved their tools short distances from the source of the stone to the site where they were discovered — brushing aside the rare but widespread presence of artefact transfers over km. Nor is there much decisive evidence that they were fundamentally less social or less inclined to mingle with those outside their tribe. They simply travelled on their own path, running roughly in parallel to ours, albeit with different twists and turns in the trail.
They were not parochial cul-de-sac Europeans, but instead lived across immensely varied lands well into Asia — even towards the shores of the Pacific, if some Chinese stone tools are any indicator. They were capable hunters and knowledgeable gatherers; artisan crafters across a range of materials. Weathering multiple glacial cycles, they survived extreme climate change as rapid and severe as the worst predictions for the coming centuries. E xploring who the Neanderthals really were is complex, not least because each facet of their lives was interconnected.
Finding out what they ate — in some cases, based on the microscopic remains of food found cemented between their teeth — can shed light on where they went, how often they moved around, and whether they planned ahead. At first, researchers assumed that Neanderthals were hunters; one of the very earliest reconstruction drawings included a spear, and by the lateth century archaeologists were looking out for traces of butchered animal remains.
Yet because many more sites were preserved from glacial periods than warm climates, scientists concluded that Neanderthals must have lived predominantly in harsh environments, where they barely clung on. By the s, it was widely believed that Neanderthals were primarily carnivores who dwelt in frigid surroundings with very little vegetation. This was in part based on ignorance of Indigenous plant use in comparable habitats, but also because anthropology was male-dominated, and particularly focused on the lives of big-game hunters.
In reality, people who live by foraging are deeply embedded in their environment, and everyone, including women, elders and young children, takes part. These shifts in perspective brought plants and creatures such as birds back into the picture, but their evidence among Neanderthals remained elusive in the archaeological record. However, this scenario was also overturned as archaeology began to mature as a discipline throughout the final decades of the 20th century.
A new array of methods, and a growing awareness of bias due to outdated excavation and collection standards, brought our perception of Neanderthals into much sharper resolution. In the decades since, evidence from hundreds of sites has been meticulously parsed and amassed, revealing the Neanderthals as top-level team hunters. They took on mighty beasts including bears, rhinos and possibly mammoth, using finely honed wooden spears for close-quarters jabbing; others were likely thrown like javelins.
The myth of speedy critters such as birds or rabbits being out of reach has been crushed, while seafood was at least sometimes on the menu. Strand-line gathering was practised, whether for shellfish or the odd washed-up marine mammal, and maybe freshwater fish. Plants supplemented this varied carnivorous diet. In archaeological sediments and on stone tools, remnants of tubers wild radish, water lily and seeds wild cereal, peas and lentils have also been discovered.
All this tells us that Neanderthals were very likely chowing down on cooked food more diverse than meat. Perhaps food was as important to social identity tens of millennia ago as it is for us today. What if the first Homo sapiens walked into dark caves to find walls blazing with ancient visions?
Aside from the visceral satisfaction of a full belly, did the Neanderthals experience passions at a more profound level? Were they capable of self-expression, and abstract thought? Archaeologists are nudging closer to affirmative answers. Paintings found at three caves in Spain — La Pasiega, Maltravieso and Ardales — include red-daubed stalactites and flowstone, a clean vertical line and, most enchanting of all, a stencilled silhouette of a hand.
Just recently, scientists applied a dating technique measuring the radioactive decay of uranium-thorium in the minerals encrusting the paintings, thereby revealing a minimum age. The results were startling: the oldest ranged from 67,, years, appearing some 20,, years before we believe that H sapiens arrived in Europe. For many scholars, this represents strong evidence that Neanderthals were responsible.
Others are more hesitant: dating millimetre-thick flowstone layers is complex, and some results suggested contamination.
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Studies across Europe had already found that many cave paintings rested on a substratum of red hand-stencils, lines and dots. The line image at the La Pasiega site seems connected to a ladder-like form, although the other parts might have been added later. If genuine, these discoveries have exposed a hidden layer of Neanderthal self-expression, sitting beneath the more famous Upper Palaeolithic oeuvre. Perhaps painting was even something our species actually learned, rather than being the independent wellspring of art. In the s, hundreds of metres deep inside the Bruniquel cave in southern France, researchers uncovered stalagmites snapped off and arranged into two rings, encircling smaller piles.
But it was only in , after a suspiciously old radiocarbon measurement was taken, that researchers began studying them in detail. Over , years ago, it seems that Neanderthals walked into the isolated chamber and carefully built these large circular structures. More than pieces from the central parts of the stalagmite columns were placed in layers, some balanced on top of each other, others standing in parallel.
Many had been extensively burned, and blazes had been kindled in the small piles. So far there are no artifacts, and no explanation for the rings, but these structures would have taken time and planning to create, and the foresight to provide sufficient illumination underground.
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Research is ongoing — most excitingly, to see what lies beneath the floor, entombed in calcium carbonate — but Bruniquel has already opened a vista onto a Neanderthal mind as elaborate as our own. But absence of bones does not prove absence of hominins, and we know that H sapiens were making their way into the Levant by at least , years ago.
So the case is not entirely closed for the cave art, even if the 3D creation at Bruniquel seems secure. Still, these revelations have radically altered our understanding, and expectations, of what Neanderthals did in their daily lives — which now includes the possibility of more esoteric practices. A longside the archaeological evidence, genetics is the second pillar of the recent scientific reappraisal of the Neanderthals.
Increasingly refined data suggest that humans and Neanderthals shared an ancestor around ,, years ago, before they split along different evolutionary paths. This process could even have taken place within genetically diverse but interconnected hominin populations that evolved in Africa, and moved out from there to the Near East and farther lands. In , researchers analysed the genome of three Neanderthal individuals, and compared the data with modern humans from various parts of the world.
However it happened, the science is clear: to produce the amount of DNA surviving today, taking into account complex processes of selection against Neanderthal genes and less fertile hybrids, there must have been an awful lot of sex between the communities.