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Neandertal emplumado, sculpture de Fabio Fogliazza © Museo de la Evolución Humana. Junta de Castilla y León
Neandertal emplumado, sculpture de Fabio Fogliazza © Museo de la Evolución Humana. Junta de Castilla y León

Neanderthal : from primitives to full-fledged human beings

The Neanderthal portrait is gradually specified and humanised. Recent discoveries have revealed a culture that cannot simply be reduced to subsistence behaviour patterns.

Beautiful Neanderthal objetcs

Recent findings attest to a culture that cannot simply be reduced to subsistence behaviour patterns. Despite their rarity, these traces of symbolic behaviour reflect complex thinking that would not be unique to modern humans and have contributed to changing the image of Neanderthals. To what end did Neanderthals collect non-utilitarian objects, fossils and beautiful minerals? Did they adorn themselves? Probably, since shells, perforated animal teeth worn as pendants, feathers and raptor talons were found in Neanderthal living sites. Dye blocks, including ochre, and sometimes grinding devices, have also been found.

What were they used for? Perhaps to decorate skins and barks or for body paint. Finally, the mask of La Roche-Cotard and the geometric-patterned floor engravings discovered in Gorham's Cave (Gibraltar) as well as the striking, stalagmite constructions found in the Bruniquel Cave (Tarn-et-Garonne) attest to the existence of symbolic productions.

Neandertal emplumado, sculpture de Fabio Fogliazza © Museo de la Evolución Humana. Junta de Castilla y León

Metaphysical thinking?

Neanderthals buried their dead, as evidenced by the presentation of two major sites where Neanderthal burials were unearthed: the Spy Cave near Namur in Belgium and La Ferrassie in Dordogne. Original fossils, photographs, illustrations and newspapers illustrate the context of these discoveries.

In 1886, two skeletons lying on their side were exhumed from the Spy Cave. Diggers began to consider the hypothesis of a burial, based on the two bodies’ position and the presence of bones that were still connected.

In 1912, a committee gathering greatest French pre-historians of the time - including the abbots Henri Breuil and Jean Bouyssonie and Hugo Obermaier -, stated that the La Ferrassie burials were the absolute proof that Neanderthals buried their dead. The great La Ferrassie shelter is famous for its eight Neanderthal tombs, which were excavated between 1909 and 1921 and then in 1973 (3 children, 1 infant, 2 foetuses, 1 man and 1 woman).

Illustration de Gilles Tosello représentant l’inhumation d’un Néandertalien sur le site de La Ferrassie (1988) © Gilles Tosselo
Illustration de Gilles Tosello représentant l’inhumation d’un Néandertalien sur le site de La Ferrassie (1988) © Gilles Tosselo

The human skeletal remains that raise questions

Certain fossils present specific pathologies (including trauma that is akin to rodeo injuries). Indeed, one of the skeletons found in the Shanidar Cave (Iraqi Kurdistan) presents severe disabilities that long predated the death, suggesting a form of mutual assistance within the group. Disarticulated and fractured human remains, tools made from human bones (found in various sites, including Krapina, Croatia and Goyet, Belgium) provide evidence of cannibalism. This presumed, cannibalistic behaviour should not be a reason to dismiss Neanderthals as barbarians… Artworks, stories and tales illustrate the topic of cannibalism in various civilisations.

Quiz : qui était Néandertal

Découvrez votre cousin néandertal avec ce quiz ludique et pédagogique à faire en famille !

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