The birth of culture? The strange world of neanderthal man

Neanderthals first appeared in Asia and then spread northward and westward into Europe as the weather permitted, even crossing to Britain where the remains of a jawbone in Kents Cavern, Torquay, have been found dating back as recently as 35,000 years ago.

Neanderthals have had a bad press. To call someone a "Neanderthal" is usually meant as an insult, implying that they are thick, old-fashioned or brutish. Pictures of Neanderthal people were, until recently, more like apes than men. They were shown walking with a stoop and bent knees.

This is wrong. Neanderthal brains were at least the same size as those of modern humans, if not a touch bigger. They also walked as upright as we do, although they were more hairy and usually shorter. They were stronger than us, with broad noses and foreheads that jutted out above the eyebrows. Almost all these adaptations helped to reduce the surface area of these early humans, helping them conserve heat in the bitterly cold Ice Ages.

Neanderthals were highly skilled at using tools. Recent archaeological evidence shows that their hands were at least as nimble as ours. The most famous site where tools have been found is at Le Moustier in the Dordogne, France. In 1909, archaeologists found an almost complete Neanderthal skull there, less than 45,000 years old. Hundreds of sharp, skilfully crafted stone tools were found alongside the bones.

Neanderthals used some of these as weapons. Their spears were not designed to be thrown, but were used for stabbing and clubbing. Stone tools helped them build impressive shelters – the first human houses – and they are the first people known to have buried their dead, often leaving ornaments in the graves of those they loved to help them on to the next life. This means these people almost certainly had beliefs, perhaps religions, and developed societies where some individuals were thought to be more important than others.

Perhaps the most significant discovery of all was dug up in 1995 by Dr Ivan Turk, a fossil-hunter from Ljubljana, Slovenia, next to a fireplace in a Neanderthal house. He found a hollowed-out bear bone with several holes bored out in a straight line. This could be a fragment from the world's oldest known musical instrument – a Neanderthal flute.

What tunes were played on this prehistoric pipe? It's hard to say, because no one knows for sure how long the original flute was, or how many holes it had, as only a small section remains. Some researchers believe it would have played what we would recognise as a minor or "blues" scale today, with a flattened third note.

In 1983, a Neanderthal bone was found in a cave in Israel which is almost identical to a bone in modern humans called the hyoid, which connects our tongues to our throats. This means that Neanderthals almost certainly had the capacity to speak. Also, the size of openings in Neanderthal vertebrae for the nerves that control the tongue for speech are about the same as in modern humans – unlike Lucy's people – meaning that they could produce a wide range of sounds.

Music, ceremonies, weapons, tools and conversation are the stuff of people possessing intelligence, brains, culture and an appreciation of beauty. The Neanderthals were certainly big and burly enough to cope with the hardship of living in caves through an Ice Age, but there's nothing to suggest that they were any more brutish than us.

What happened to these strong, intelligent, well-adapted folk? To understand this, we must look at ourselves properly in the mirror – and ask, as we will be doing tomorrow, what it is about modern human beings that makes us special?

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Hire Manager - Tool Hire

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is seeking someone w...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

That's a bit rich

The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference
Rugby World Cup 2015: The tournament's forgotten XV

Forgotten XV of the rugby World Cup

Now the squads are out, Chris Hewett picks a side of stars who missed the cut
A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

Britain's Atlantis

Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

David Starkey's assessment
Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

'An enormous privilege and adventure'

Oliver Sacks writing about his life
'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago
Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

Orthorexia nervosa

How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition