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Jean-Jacques Hublin: Who Were the Neanderthals?


Q: Can you tell me about why you're so passionate about studying Neanderthals and how that teaches us about ourselves?

A: Studying Neanderthals is really thrilling. First of all, Neanderthals are one of the best known group of fossil hominids. We have hundreds of Neanderthal remains, and we can really rebuild a very precise picture of this extinct hominid.

Furthermore, Neanderthals are not just remote, extinct species of primates living some dozens of million years ago; they're really our closest neighbors, our closest relatives in the tree of human evolution. And this sister-species, this sister-subspecies -- we're not quite sure of their status -- are really very close to us. Speaking about the Neanderthals somehow is also speaking about the very nature of modern humankind.

Q: Is it hard for us today to imagine sharing the landscape with another species?

A: We had a lot of difficulties imagining that in the past we shared this planet with other species of hominids. For the last 30,000 years, only one very homogenous species of humans peopled the whole world and shared technology and culture. But this is a very exceptional situation. For the past five million years, most of the time it was different. We shared this planet with other groups of hominids.

And this is a really difficult thing to imagine: that another species, someone with whom you could not interbreed, could have a piece of this culture and technology.

When dealing with the symbolic life of the Neanderthals, one should make a difference between the Neanderthals before the arrival of modern humans in Europe and the Neanderthals after the arrival of modern humans in Europe.

Until 40,000 B.C., Neanderthals do not display many signs of symbolic life. In fact, we don't know any kind of art or symbols or pictures used by Neanderthals. We know that they did use pigment, colors. We don't know very much for what purpose, and I don't know if they made anything real complex with this.

One behavior which has attracted a lot of attention from the archaeologists is the use of burials by Neanderthals. But still, we wonder what is the exact significance of those burials. The Neanderthal burials are very simple. They are just simple pits where the bodies were set.

After 40,000 B.C. the situation becomes much different. The modern humans had invaded Europe, importing a lot of these new behaviors, supporting symbols, pictures. And the last Neanderthals, in the neighborhood of this new group of humans and somehow imitating these new behaviors, started also to make body ornaments, some kind of jewels. We can consider this as the expression of some kind of symbolic thought.

Q: But overall -- can you talk about the burials for Neanderthals?

A: The last Neanderthals, the one who are were contemporaneous with the first modern humans in Europe, had rather organized dwellings, like the modern humans, with colored floors, some kind of huts, well-defined fireplace, and spots for different activities.

Now, if you go backward before 40,000 years, most of the Neanderthal dwellings are very messy and it's very difficult for us to identify any kind of specific zone for different activities in this kind of dwellings.

Q: Do you think the Neanderthals had a different kind of mind than the moderns?

A: Usually, one emphasizes the technological differences between Neanderthals and modern humans. They did not make the same kind of artifacts; they did not have the same kind of weapons.

Likely, this is not the major difference between Neanderthals and modern humans. I think very likely that something lying in the social organization and in the ability to communicate on long-distance was a major difference between the Neanderthals and the Upper Paleolithic modern humans in Europe.

I think one of the best expressions of this difference is the use of symbols and pictures. Pictures are a way to communicate with someone else without this person being here. It can be a far distance or it can be in the far future. A picture allows communication without the presence of the two interlocutors. And this is apparently what modern humans used to do and Neanderthals did not.

And it means something about the existence of some kind of long-distance social nets, very complex in the Upper Paleolithic, something that likely did not exist in the Middle Paleolithic of Europe. One has to see the Neanderthal groups like big families of Neanderthals, living in one spot and exploiting the local resources in a very opportunistic way. For some reasons when they could not survive longer in this part, they would just move away.

The picture we have of the Upper Paleolithic modern humans in Europe is quite different. When one considers the objects, the raw materials found in their sites, it's very clear that these people were involved in net exchanges at long distances, several hundred kilometers, sometimes more than 500 kilometer. They belonged to big entity, a big cultural entity, and it's very likely that Neanderthals did not have this conscience at all.

Q: Did that contribute to their extinction over time?

A: Regarding the extinction of Neanderthal, there are a number of hypotheses that have been defrocked. For example, the occurrence of epidemic disease imported by this tropical population entering Europe. This does not match very well the long coexistence of Neanderthals and modern humans -- we know that Neanderthals and modern humans coexisted for several millennia.

It's very likely, also, that there was some kind of not-very-friendly interaction between the two groups. And of course, we would like to see all of these hunter gatherers as very pacific people. I'm not quite sure they were so pacific.

Small differences in the demographic parameters of the two groups may have played a major role. It's clear that if the mortality or the fertility was slightly different in the modern humans and in the Neanderthals, as we're dealing with very small populations -- just a limited number of thousands of people for [all of] Europe -- with time one population could have completely replaced another one. Probably all of these features played together. And I think the most important thing is to keep in mind the climatic and environmental framework of all these phenomena.

Neanderthals all along this half-million year existence were what I would call a pulsating population. With the cycles of glacial periods and inter-glacial periods following each other in Europe, they had to shrink and to survive only in some geographical refuges. During the peak of the glacial period, Neanderthals were suffering very harsh conditions. And probably one of the responses was some kind of demographic crash.

This happened many times in the past before the arrival of modern humans. Some 40,000 years ago, during a rather mild but unstable period, modern humans entered Europe. And since then we had two actors in Europe: Neanderthals and modern humans shared the European territory. It was a kind of equilibrium. It looks like they had different ways to explore their environment. And probably some parts of Europe were not used by humans at all.

At the eve of the last glacial stage, some 30,000 years ago, the European territories started to reduce again once more. The old scenario started once more. But then the situation was most different. There were challengers. Most of the refuges where Neanderthals used to survive during the glacial peaks were already occupied by modern humans. And probably this climatic change boosted the competition between the two groups, and eventually the Neanderthals disappeared and the modern humans survived.

It's quite significant that the very last Neanderthals found in Croatia, in southern Spain, are found in remote, mountainous areas of southern Europe which classically were always some kind of area where people survived in difficult situations. They date around 28,000 to 29,000 years ago, and we know that this is the time when the bad weather started.

Q: Do you think the two species had different brains or different minds?

A: It's difficult to [argue] that Neanderthals and modern humans would have very different brains. So far, anatomically, they don't look so different. But definitely, they had a different mind.

I think modern humans just invented a new way to think. And we see this, for example, in the burst of innovations in the technology. The Middle Paleolithic world is a world where changes were very slow. But when we move into the Upper Paleolithic with modern humans, we have a lot of innovations. Every few centuries there is something new happening, and this is probably a very different way to adapt to the environment.

One other thing we have to keep in mind is that Neanderthals were rather well adapted to the environment of Europe. Their body was well adapted to this environment. It's a paradox to think that this tropical population coming from a completely different environment finally survived in Europe while the Neanderthal [became extinct].

I think one reason for this major difference in the behavior of modern humans and Neanderthals in the European continent is that because of their low level of biological adaptation, this tropical population in Europe had to innovate a lot. And probably this is something also that boosted their need for invention, their need for technological adaptation in this very challenging environment.

Q: Do you think Neanderthals had language?

A: It's very likely that Neanderthal spoke. The problem is what did they say, exactly? It's difficult to answer this question, of course. I don't think it's really a question relevant of physical anthropology -- we can find little difference in the ability of producing sounds in one group or another.

I think the major difference probably lies in the archaeological record. The use of symbols and pictures by modern humans probably is just the external sign of a major linguistic revolution in these groups. And probably the major difference between Neanderthals and modern humans did not lie so much in some kind of different technological ability, but probably in the major difference in the level of communication between groups.

Q: Wasn't it just a slight advantage moderns had in their networks?

A: Sometimes in evolution a very small advantage can have a very strong consequence. We used to see the Neanderthals and the modern humans as very different in their technological abilities, but I don't think this is so important. I think probably the main difference between Neanderthals and modern humans lay in the difference in the level of communication which existed between individuals and between groups.

Q: Can you connect that to an advantage over fertility or survivability?

A: We see that modern humans, for the first time, were able to survive in periarctic environment at very high latitudes. The site of Sungir, north of Moscow, dated more than 20,000 years ago, shows that these humans were able to dwell and survive in this very difficult environment in eras where no Middle Paleolithic sides are really well demonstrated.

The way they did it is by adapting technologically, but probably also by way of a new social organization, new techniques for storage of food, and a new organization of their exploitation of the environment.

All [these] small advantages could lead to very dramatic difference in the ability to survive in this kind of environment for Neanderthals and for modern humans, especially in the perspective of competition between the two groups for the sharing of the European territory.

Q: Who are the modern humans?

A: Humans are primarily tropical animals, and for millions of years hominids evolved only in Africa. Some 1.8 million years ago, they started to spread out of Africa and to colonize the high latitudes in Eurasia. Neanderthals were able to settle in this cool to cold environment that was very challenging for these tropical animals. And this is the first reason why they are so peculiar, because they had to biologically adapt to this very difficult environment.

But they were also a very marginal population, a little bit like modern Eskimos or something like that, and they got really isolated in Europe. Because of this isolation, they had very few genetical exchanges with their African or even Asian neighbors. And this is probably the reason why they developed these unique features, which are proper to the Neanderthals and which allow them to be identified even by primary school kids, who are able to make a difference between this Neanderthal and this modern human.

Q: Can you describe Neanderthals?

A: Meeting face to face a Neanderthal would be a quite impressive experience. They had a very large body mass, some 200 pounds of muscles and bones for a male, with a very long trunk and short limbs, a little bit like Eskimos, and a very big head, a very long face, very developed bony brow ridges above the orbits. The face is very projected forward in its middle part, with almost no cheeks and the receding chin and forehead. And in the middle of this face there was probably a huge and projecting nose and big eyes.

Q: Can you tell me about the general differences in tools?

A: What we know about the technology of these hominids is mainly what we know about the stone tools. But we have to remember that the stone tools were probably just a very limited portion of the equipment of these people. They used the stone tools very often just to make other tools made of bone and made of wood, and we don't know these tools.

The technology of the Neanderthals is rather complex in some aspects. But one of the features of this assemblage is that there are no really stereotypical objects. There are all sort of intermediate shapes between these different kinds of side-scrapers, for example. And probably the type of objects that are described in the pre-history handbooks are types existing just for the archaeologist but not for the Neanderthal.

One of the most striking features of the industries made by the Cro-Magnons in Europe during the Upper Paleolithic is the occurrence of standardized shapes for tools and weapons. This is something really new. It's obvious with the flint object, but it's even more obvious with the bone industry -- the spear points, the eyed needles, the harpoons, all these kinds of objects were made following a precise pattern, a very precise model. And somehow, they are familiar to us because they are reminiscent of our pens, our combs, all these plastic objects around us which are so easy to identify.

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