Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Original Social Contract

The Original Social Contract

So far, the life of an individual Neanderthal is coming together. We know their genome, physiology, and diet. Yet the most important piece of the puzzle is missing: their social life. Neanderthals are just like humans in this regard, we are both extremely social. No individual is an island, and to look into the mind of a Neanderthal is to see one thinker within a thinking group. They lived in groups of 5-10, made up of their immediate family (humans lived in groups of 20-30 made up of relatives as well as close family). These familial clans occupied a small territory and rarely strayed from it except to trade. The population of Neanderthals in Europe peaked at around 70,000 individuals, with only around 7,000 reproductive females. Sometimes, multiple Neanderthal families would gather around a large kill site (like at La Cotte, Salzgitter-Lebenstedt, and Molodova), but this was temporary and as soon as the meat was gone, the group disbanded. At Molodova Ukraine there were multiple huts and wind breaks suiting maybe 20-40 Neanderthals at one area.

Living Together

In the same way that humans do, Neanderthals divided their living spaces in accordance to their needs. In open spaces like at Tor Faraj, there are multiple separate sections: butchery, primary stone processing, bone/antler work, final stone/plant processing, trash dump, a wind-break made of brush, straw bedding area, and a central activity area complete with a hearth. This is a clear sign of the social behavior of Neanderthals, they structured their area because they structured their behavior. Neanderthals did this not only in open spaces, but in caves as well. At Riparo Bombrini Italy, Neanderthals located butchering, tool-making, and fire use in different parts of their cave. Neanderthals were conservative in land use, with small clustered living sites even when outside. When living in a cave, Neanderthals occupied a small part at the entrance, and only slightly ventured deeper.

The Neanderthal living space at Lazaret Cave in southern France, by Libor Balak

When Neanderthal clans met it meant three things: communal butchery, trading, or warfare. Neanderthals traded precious stones, obsidian, and fossil shells over hundreds of kilometers. While not nearly as developed as early human trade, it is still remarkable that distant trading is not a uniquely human phenomenon. Large butchery sites and trading show interpersonal connection between clans, but just as with humans...spears are not only for hunting but for warfare. At Saint Cesaire France a Neanderthal burial circa 36 kya showed evidence of violence. This individual at some point had a serious head wound which had healed. The wound was made by a sharp object, and the location of the wound points toward violence as opposed to accident. Neanderthal clans competed over resources just as much as humans and chimpanzees do. The evolution of warfare is not unique to humans.

While contact between different clans led to violence, the social development within a clan is remarkable. The Neanderthal family group comprised multiple generations, with children and the elderly receiving special treatment. An elderly Neanderthal (around 40 years old) buried at the Shanidar Cave survived under extreme stress. This individual (who lived around 60-80 kya) was blind in the left eye from a severe wound, had a crippled right arm (which was withered and caused paralysis), and had a deformed lower right leg and foot. This individual could not hunt, but was cared for by its family for years. At La Chapelle-Aux-Saints a Neanderthal was found who only had two teeth. This individual could not chew food yet survived to be 40-50 years old. Most likely, this individual had food chewed for it by another family member multiple times every day for years. It is surprising to find love and affection in the fossil record, yet here it is. It is undeniable that these individuals were loved and cared for by their families.

Model of a Neanderthal at a American Museum of Natural History, D.C.

Neanderthals are not the only species to care for the injured, an elderly Homo Erectus in Dmanisi Georgia (around 1 million 750 kya) did not have teeth and probably had food chewed for it as well. At Atapuerca Spain a Homo Heidelbergensis was found with a severely deformed skull. This was a child, who lived with this deformity for 8-12 years. This child could not hunt, yet was fed and cared for by its family til its death, around 530 kya. Also at Atapuerca Spain another Heidelbergensis was found with a hobbled spine, this individual could not hunt either yet was cared for for years until its death around 500 kya. The care for the elderly goes hand in hand with what makes us human, yet it is not a uniquely human trait. This complex use of the emotion of sympathy began not even with Neanderthals, but with Homo Erectus about one million years ago. In this way, the mind of the Neanderthal creeps out, if only because this part of its mind is shared by both its evolutionary predecessor and us today.


Children and infants were also treated differently, they were given much more elaborate graves than most Neanderthals. “There is evidence that Neanderthals cared for their sick and injured children for months and often years.” -Penny Spikins. In the small and relatively isolated groups in which Neanderthals lived, children were much more important and valuable to the group's survival. Selection pressure focused on creating close emotional connections within such a small group. Humans have an extremely slow maturation rate compared to other hominins, “The slow development in children is directly related to the emergence of human social and cultural complexity.” -Jean-Jacques Hublin. While the average reproductive age of chimpanzees is 13, and humans 19, Neanderthals were somewhere in between. The rate of mental growth and generally the experience of a Neanderthal childhood would also have been somewhere in between those extremes. “We moved from a primitive 'live fast and die young' strategy to a 'live slow and grow old' strategy and that has helped make humans one of the most successful organisms on the planet.” -Tanya Smith.

A model of a Neanderthal child at the Neanderthal Museum in Krapina, Croatia

Model of a Neanderthal child by Elizabeth Daynes, at the National Museum of Prehistory at Les Eyzies

While Neanderthals cared deeply for their children, 39% of Neanderthals suffered significant periods of poor nutrition as infants, making hunger and famine somewhat common. While this may look like a rough upbringing, “There is a critical distinction to be made between a harsh childhood and a childhood lived in a harsh environment.” -Penny Spikins. Historically, 38% of prehistoric northern Canadian Inuit children had the same rates of famine. Neanderthals weren't bad providers, they provided the same amount of food as early modern humans. Gathering in such cold and harsh environments as Ice Age Europe was risky in and of itself. “Neanderthals were not as technologically sophisticated as the Inuit; that they were able to achieve comparable levels of nutrition with simpler tools is a testament to the success of their more physical, dangerous approach to daily life.” -Thomas Wynn, Frederick Collidge.

Illustration of a Neanderthal child (Ferrassie 8), by Emmanuel Roudier


We speak on average 16,000 words a day, language either spoken or in thought constitutes the majority of our inner lives. Is this the same for Neanderthals? Neanderthals could make the same range of phonemes as humans, we both have a peculiarly placed hyoid bone. Most animals have their hyoid bone located deep in their throat, allowing for only barking and bursts of uncontrollable force. Humans and Neanderthals are different, our hyoid bones are located in the upper part of our throat. This does two things: it gives us expert control over our vocal muscles which creates the panoply of phonemes we hear today, and it allows us to choke easily on food. The evolutionary benefit of complex language far outweighs the cost of an increase in choking deaths. At least when we're choking, we can use language to call for help!

There were some phonemes Neanderthals could not make. They lacked a mental protuberance, which is the point at the tip of the chin. The mentalis muscle helps move the lower lip and allows for bilabial phonemes in humans, as well as the bilabial click. While some Neanderthals do have a mental protuberance, it's not in the same shape as modern humans. With this information, we can scientifically prove the Neanderthal name Brokk was never used.

While Neanderthals could make complex sounds, how do we know they used them for communication? Their ancestors Homo Heidelbergensis had complex and well developed auditory tracts, with similar complexity as modern humans. This is evidence that Heidelbergensis had adapted to listening for complexity, which certainly is evidence of complex language. These features were passed down to Neanderthals and ourselves, evidence that the invention of language was far far in the past. Neanderthals also had the FOXP2 gene, alleles of which are associated with comprehending grammar and controlling mouth movements when producing words. Neanderthals also had well developed Broca's areas and Wernicke's areas in their brains, both of which play a role in complex language. All of this evidence points towards complex language use.

The location of Broca's Area, Wernicke's Area, and the hyoid bone in Homo Sapiens

If Neanderthals had complex language, what exactly did it sound like? The only academic trying to answer this question with something other than we don't know is Steven Mithen. In his 2006 book he contends that Neanderthal language would have been a proto-linguistic system of communication developed before the splitting of music and language into two separate forms of cognition. This is summed up as Hmmmmm: Holistic (non-compositional), Manipulative (utterances are commands or suggestions not descriptive statements), Multi-Modal (acoustic as well as gestural and mimetic), Musical, and Mimetic. While this is extremely theoretical and requires a lot of philosophizing, it is an interesting first step.

Steven Mithen

The context of language use is also vitally important to early humans. Humans built huge bonfires, and keep them going throughout the day and night. Thomas Wynn and Frederick Collidge in their book How to Think Like a Neanderthal explain that this novel use of fire is related to the invention of ritual and the birth of storytelling. For early humans, large fires were the central locus of their camps, and at night became the locus of group bonding and conversation. Neanderthals did not build large fires like this, and thus did not treat them as opportunities for storytelling and ritual. Fires were used only in a practical sense, as hearths for cooking, and nothing else. Neanderthals could still have ritual or stories but the context would be very different to how we perceive those uses of language. Neanderthals had few interactions with outsiders, and probably did not have different linguistic modes conveying politeness. “Neanderthal language was direct and task-relevant. It was capable of referring to events in the past, or future, or at distant places, but only in ways connected to a context shared with the listener.” -Thomas Wynn, Frederick Collidge.

Human language fractures and divides itself naturally as humans spread and lose contact with one another. Neanderthal language evolved in the same manner, yet with even smaller groups and even less outside communication. For humans the next valley over would have a different dialect, for Neanderthals the next family would have a different dialect. Neanderthals did not venture far outside of their clan territory – why was this the case? Was it caused by the inability to communicate over long distances? Or did the isolation of small family groups create the lack of long distance language? It is impossible to know, and certainly impossible to assign any causality. The more reasonable answer is that the Neanderthal personality and their language habits were one and the same. Two sides of the same coin, inseparable and feeding off one another, creating a feedback loop of xenophobia and familial dialects.

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