It is a good week for defenders of the Neanderthals—a species long maligned for having fallen short of human thought, and as a consequence, having lost the competition between our species. While I don’t necessarily assert that Neanderthals did have similar cognitive abilities to their Homo sapiens kin, the arguments against that possibility have always struck me as shallow. For decades, anthropologists have argued that the gap between the rich array of human artifacts to the sparser array of those of the Neanderthals—specifically those artifacts which have no discernible utility that are traditionally interpreted as symbolic—has shown that the Neanderthals did not have the propensity for symbolic thought, language, or complex cumulative culture. There is a relevant old adage in science, however, that says that ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.’
After all, how would we know if Neanderthals spoke, created symbols, or passed on rich cultural traditions? We are confident that the human groups living at the same time did, during the lower and middle paleolithic, in which the Neanderthals endured their downfall from Eurasian dominance. We have uncovered troves of artifacts from anatomically modern humans that are best explained as having only cultural or symbolic significance, or in any case were characterized by their non-utility. The engraved pieces of ochre and bone, for example, found in Blombos Cave, or the engraved pieces of ostrich egg shells found in Diepkloof on the southern coasts of South Africa, as of now have no better explanation than that they are the same sorts of symbolic artifacts produced by modern human groups. Archaeologists argue that these artistic implements were probably used to either distinguish people of different social groups, or perhaps people of different social classes within the same social group, or perhaps both. These South African artifacts date back to a time when Neanderthals were still dominant in Europe, before the last wave of fully modern humans left Africa, such as those that would have occupied Blombos and Diepkloof.
In the last few decades, new evidence has occasionally surfaced which gives similar evidence for symbolic behavior among Neanderthals. At the cemetery at La Ferrassie, for example, the remains of eight Neanderthals were found, and two of them have symbolic implications. First, an adult male was found buried with a piece of bone with four sets of parallel etchings. A child was also found that had been buried underneath a slab of limestone with several gouges etched out of it. In addition, in 2010, archaeologists reported finding 50,000 year old perforated and pigmented shells associated with Neanderthals in Spain. Pierced and grooved animal teeth also provide evidence of Neanderthal jewelry. (For more information, see here).
Such evidence is of the same kind that is used to identify modern human behavior in the fossil record, yet for many archaeologists, it is not enough to show that humans and Neanderthals shared a degree of cognitive complexity. Numerous arguments have been presented about why the Neanderthal evidence should be interpreted away, such as that the layers of soil were jumbled, giving us a false idea of the ages of artifacts. Others have even argued that those instances of Neanderthal symbolism are cases in which Neanderthals blindly imitated the symbolic behavior of modern humans, without having any understanding of their purpose or importance.
Meanwhile, the evidence for Neanderthal cognitive complexity continues to accumulate. On March 5th, Eugène Morin and Véronique Laroulandie published an article in the Public Library of Science presenting new evidence of symbolic thought in Neanderthals. In two archaeological sites in France, they found three instances in which the talons of eagles were found to have cut-marks from stone tools. This is significant because there is no nutritional reason for them to have removed the talons. Morin and Laroulandie suggest that the talons could have been used either as jewelry or as tools. However, they discarded the tool hypothesis since all three of the talons were from eagles, which were among the rarest in the habitat. If they had been for use as tools, we would have expected that the talons of more common raptors would have been found alongside them, and probably in greater numbers.
The sample sizes are still too low to make any final judgments, but thus is the endemic condition of most of paleoanthropology. What also remains to be seen is how long the idea will remain dominant that Neanderthals lacked advanced cognitive abilities, in spite of the same kinds of accumulating archaeological evidence that provide evidence for modern cognitive abilities in H. sapiens. It very well may be true that our cognitive abilities cast a shadow over those of Neanderthals, but the idea that they lacked any measure of our higher-level cognitive abilities seems to be less and less intellectually feasible.