Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Neandering Mind

The Neandering Mind

This is completely speculative, we know Neanderthals had brains and must have had a mind...but was there a difference between their mental experience and ours? Axiomatically we are cut off from their inner life, but archaeologically we can parse out similarities. In the large scale evolutionary history of our genus, the personality traits of a Neanderthal and the personality traits of a modern human are two variations on a similar theme. We both experienced experience, an inner life exists for us as much as it existed for a Neanderthal. While definitively proving the existence of the Neanderthal mind is impossible at the moment, the fossil record can be used to infer important details. Analyzing specific circumstances of a Neanderthal's life can give us certain actions and happenstances which their mind had to encounter. Examining the physical life of a Neanderthal can show us what their mind had to overcome to survive, and possibly can show what their mind considered and thought about.

Pragmatism, Stoicism, and Bravery

[Neanderthals had] tenacity, or dogged persistence. Neanderthals must have been able to complete their tasks while in pain or with diminished capacity.” -Thomas Wynn, Frederick Collidge. Crippled Neanderthals would live and thrive years after grievous injuries, and many would have to shrug off pain and discomfort to survive day by day. Neanderthals share this trait with their predecessors and ourselves, yet Neanderthal bones show more damage than our bones. Erik Trinkaus conducted a study to see if there was any correlation between Neanderthal bone damage and modern human bone damage. This would determine which modern behavior creates similar fractures. As it turns out, modern rodeo cowboys suffer the same level and types of damage as Neanderthals. Neanderthal life consisted of getting up close and personal with large animals, often resulting in injury or death. “Neanderthals had the ability to withstand the pain, discomfort, fatigue, and hunger that were part of their everyday existence...Death was a constant companion; Neanderthals faced their mortality every day...Neanderthals had a concept of death, and...it was clearly something that they thought about.” -Thomas Wynn, Frederick Collidge.

Related to pragmatism is the way Neanderthals treated a body after death. While some groups practiced burial including the building of monuments and rituals, others did not, and some simply pushed the bones away from their living space. While Neanderthals would have affection for a living member of their clan, once that member died some groups of Neanderthals lost their sentimentality. There is much evidence of nutritional cannibalism in Neanderthal culture, either of other groups or of their own group. Changing the way you treat a body, from an individual, to a source of food, is purely pragmatic and speaks to the utility of the Neanderthal mind. At Moula-Guercy cave a group of Neanderthals came upon another clan and killed 6 of their members, dismembering and eating them afterward. They cracked open their skulls to eat their brains, cut the meat off their bones and crushed them for the marrow, and cut out their tongues. This is the same practice that Neanderthals would have done to butcher their common food source, red deer. Treating another Neanderthal body in such a way is completely pragmatic, dependent entirely on the lack of food and the necessity of your group over another. This is indicative of the way a Neanderthal mind would have looked at the world, while developed enough to feel compassion for a relative, pragmatic enough to butcher another tribe's children for food. At the time, we shared this frightening sense of practicality, contemporaneous humans were just as cannibalistic. Even today, while we may not eat another tribe's children, we still kill them without mercy.

Only about 20,000 years off. An extremely inaccurate depiction of a Neanderthal from 1908, showing them to be savage and amoral brutes who are completely unrelated to the refinement and culture of the early 20th century

Pragmatism also covers the practical necessities of group living. Neanderthals, like the rest of our genus, relied on forms of grooming for social cohesion. With the development of complex language and abstract thought our genus was able to use absurdity, juxtaposition, and the exploitation of surprise, to tell a joke. The question is, when did this capacity develop? The evolutionary necessity for joke-telling increases as group population size increases. Once your tribe is larger than your immediate family (socially bonded by love), then an individual has to find another way to make connections. Since Neanderthal clans were only made up of their immediate family, it is possible that they did not share the need for complex social growth that their human neighbors did. Neanderthals may not have had the mental acuity to craft a joke, the ability to juxtapose seeming incoherent objects may have been outside of their mental reach, “they lacked either the motivation or the ability to make others laugh...” -Thomas Wynn, Frederick Collidge. While the abstraction and incoherent strangeness of human jokes may have been outside of their purview, absurdity through tomfoolery very much was a part of their life. The development of slap-stick comedy goes back to our chimpanzee ancestors, and certainly Neanderthals exploited this form of social bonding, “they may have had clowns who would make others laugh.” -Thomas Wynn, Frederick Collidge.

A reconstruction of a Neanderthal family in an American museum, 1930s. Covered in dirt and having severely bent backs you would have thought they never groomed and could not run anywhere. Neanderthals had leather, body painting, and personal adornments, they probably washed and kept clean. The ones found here with spinal problems were the elders of their group, and were cared for on a daily basis

Another practical problem of social life is genetic diversity. While not consciously an issue, it was certainly overcome since those Neanderthal clans who continued their lineage within the family died out due to inbreeding. All species in our genus and further back practice some form of out-migration. This is when a child leaves the group and travels to join another group, usually this practice is given a cultural reason but practically it helps spread the flow of genes. Usually the culture chooses who leaves the group, sometimes it is always male and other times always female. At one Neanderthal site, all the males in a clan were related, evidence that the migrants were female. Yet at many human hunter-gatherer sites, the females and especially grandmothers supply the most food from their local plant knowledge. Many societies which rely on the knowledge of females practice male out-migration. While it is not known whether Neanderthals practiced male or female out-migration, they most likely chose one – humans are the only species in our genus in which local culture selects the gender of the migrant, and some human cultures out-migrate both genders. Thomas Wynn and Frederick Collidge suggest that the practice of Neanderthal trading may not have been similar to human trading at all. Neanderthals may have given a precious stone to the out-migrating child, so as to ease the transition from one clan to another through gift giving.

Neanderthals relied on families and the emotion bonds that bound them together. There was no need for cheater detection, which became advantageous only when non-emotional and contract-like agreements between acquaintances and even strangers became common...We suspect that Neanderthals' direct, emotional, embodied style of social cognition placed them at a marked disadvantage...The modern humans who entered...Europe...lived in larger face-to-face groups than Neanderthals did, maintained regular social contracts with acquaintances who lived hundreds of kilometers away, and almost certainly had the ability to negotiate with strangers, Neanderthals would not have known how to respond.” -Thomas Wynn, Frederick Collidge

While Thomas Wynn and Frederick Collidge put forth an interesting argument, it is times like these where the issue of what exactly constitutes the Neanderthal mind comes to a head. It is true, Neanderthals probably did not have the extreme level of social complexity which characterizes early human groups. That style of interaction is an evolution of a uniquely human social pressure to form bonds between large semi-related tribes. Although, to say that Neanderthals completely lacked some mental ability (such as the ability to detect cheaters) is going a step further. Simply because humans did it better does not mean that Neanderthals did not do it at all.

A reconstruction of the La Chapelle-aux-Saints Neanderthal, by the Field Museum of Natural History at Chicago

Since items were traded hundreds of miles through multiple clan's territories, there must have been some form of cheater detection. How could a Neanderthal understand the idea behind a trade without the requisite idea of being cheated? If one clan traded with another, then there was some form of a contract-like agreement, the ability to trade requires interacting with strangers in a level-headed and balanced manner. Besides trading, if Neanderthals did not do this, how did we end up breeding with them at all? Neanderthal out-migrating children would have been strangers to their new families, and Neanderthals had an institutionalized response to these newcomers (letting them stay). If Neanderthals “would not have known how to respond” how did their genetic pool stay diverse and healthy?

A reconstruction of the La Chapelle-aux-Saints Neanderthal in profile, by the Field Museum of Natural History at Chicago

Sometimes multiple clans would gather at a site for a grand feast, these clans were sometimes distantly related, and sometimes knew each other. Other times, they would not have been related, and would not have known each other. Yet at these sites clans cooperatively butchered large animals or hundreds of smaller game, divvying up the spoils without widespread violence then organizing the remains into specified piles. All of these actions require a significant amount of stranger and acquaintance interaction, including the possibility of cheating and being cheated. But these obstacles were overcome by Neanderthals, and multi-clan gatherings are not localized in any one area but are spread across the Neanderthal range. This is evidence that their cooperative capacity was not an isolated cultural tactic but was uniformly spread across their species.


Neanderthal bones tell us amazing stories of personal hardship and love. Crippled and paralyzed Neanderthals were given food by their family, and older members without teeth had their food chewed for them. It is impossible to understand why a Neanderthal would do such a thing without recognizing that they felt sympathy. Neanderthal families structurally operated in the same manner that some humans still do today, multiple generations living under the same roof all providing and caring for each other. “With a high mortality rate and few survivors past the age of forty, Neanderthal families extended to no more than three generations.” -Thomas Wynn, Frederick Collidge. The reasons why Neanderthals did this are twofold: Neanderthals loved and cared for their parents and grandparents, and Neanderthals relied on the localized knowledge which older generations had acquired. The first reason is spontaneous, and we can get a glimpse into how this felt simply by asking ourselves how does it feel to us now? While a Neanderthal's experience of love and affection was probably different in some capacity than ours, it was more similar to our experience than dissimilar. Human children love their parents, and human parents love their children – this evolutionary emotional connection held the same strength in a Neanderthal family as it does still now in human families (possibly it was felt by Homo Erectus as well). The daily struggle for survival which typified the Neanderthal existence put the same evolutionary pressures on practical teachable knowledge which still exist in human societies today. The knowledge of which fauna and flora were edible and which were dangerous was passed down from generation to generation, and probably went hand-in-hand with the knowledge of the Levallois technique and clothing creation. The ability for an elder to teach a child gives the entire species the capacity to inherit the knowledge of a single individual even after their death, this is an extreme evolutionary advantage.

Neanderthal facial models by the Senckenberg Institute of Natural History Collections, in Dresden Germany

It is remarkable that a Neanderthal would feed a parent who cannot feed themselves, if only because it seems so genuinely human. We can immediately relate to the experience of a Neanderthal in that position, the extreme hardship which humans go through to care for their aging parents was similarly experienced by a Neanderthal. The adult Neanderthals had to not only provide food for their children, but sometimes for their elders as well. Both Neanderthals then and humans now still haven't come up with a real solution to the problem of middle aged resource stress (unless you count nursing homes, which you shouldn't and you should feel bad for considering it). If Neanderthals cared so deeply for their family members while alive, it does not seem improbable that they would have grieved in their death. The construction of tombs and monuments shows that fond memories of a loved one continued on into the minds of the living, far after ones death. The construction of a place to go to which represents the deceased is also a strong indication of the emotion of nostalgia and emotional process of closure.

“They formed emotional bonds with family and band mates. Someone nursed Shanidar 1 back to health, and someone strived for weeks to keep Shanidar 3 alive, to no avail. Given the harsh conditions of Neanderthal life, this is evidence of a strong emotional attachment.” -Thomas Wynn, Frederick Collidge.

While complex story driven jokes may not have been in the purview of the Neanderthal comedic routine, that is not to say that comedy didn't exist in their society. Neanderthals, as with humans and all our ancestors, play. This often includes doing silly or absurd things, and physical comedy. While certainly Neanderthal children would have played in this manner, it is possible that adults too shared in comedy. Neanderthals physically could laugh and smile, and must have laughed and smiled at something. Exactly what they found funny or how they amused themselves is impossible to say, but all hominins including our ancestors did find something funny. The act of being silly around others usually indicates social bonding, comfort, and closeness. Neanderthals loved each other, and probably showed it in the same ways that we still do today.

Neanderthals very probably could smile and laugh, and it probably happened when they were tickling each other, teasing, or playing. In fact chimpanzees laugh when they are tickled in the same places as humans, so Neanderthals probably laughed when tickled in their armpits and on their bellies and the bottoms of their feet.” -Thomas Wynn, Frederick Collidge.


There are many examples of Neanderthals surviving upper body injuries, yet very few and practically no examples of surviving lower body injuries. This seems like an anomaly, since Neanderthals certainly would have acquired lower body injuries or amputations in combat with animals or in accidents. The Neanderthal fossil record shows that while an injured arm was nursed back to health, and injured foot was not. What exactly does this mean? What we know is that Neanderthals who did have lower body injuries were not brought back to camp and buried as others were. What would cause such an anomaly within the fossil record? Why were some Neanderthals nursed back to health and others were not? Thomas Wynn and Frederick Collidge suggest that Neanderthals probably thought along the lines of if you could not move with the tribe, then you were not cared for. Neanderthals who were injured in the field away from camp were either left there to die or were killed outright. When examined without context this practice seems exceptionally brutal and callous...if a Neanderthal had the tenacity to feed their aging parent for years why would they not care for one with a broken leg? It is possible that Neanderthals recognized that certain injuries were not treatable, and killed injured family members in a kind of mercy killing. For any human and for any Neanderthal this would have been a gut-wrenching decision and the phenomenon speaks more to their emotion of sympathy than to callousness. Even then, in the fossil record there is a lack of any attempts to care for lower body injures, even minor ones. Either Neanderthals ignorantly assumed that all lower body injuries were untreatable, or they callously executed family members for even minor foot or leg injuries. Both of these options seem unreasonably strange and foreign to us now, but within the context of their harsh existence it may have seemed like the reasonable thing to do. It is always possible that we will eventually discover burials with leg injures...but for the moment this strange blip in the burial record can only be explained through ignorance or callousness.

While Neanderthals loved their family, they were very willing to kill another's. While the archeological record contains evidence of large scale cooperative groups, the constant daily struggle of one clan against another has been rendered invisible. Yet this invisible inter-clan warfare was an inseparable part of a Neanderthal's life. While Neanderthal clans did not trade and interact with each other to the same degree as early human groups, these clans still fought over limited resources. Neanderthals certainly experienced interpersonal violence. The invention of the spear signals both the birth of big game hunting and the birth of warfare. While the evolution of large groups helped create the complex social web we live in today, it also allowed for a novel social interaction...war. Groups kill other groups, it sounds obvious but to understand a Neanderthal mind you have to understand this constant companion, and how strongly it was tied to their lifestyle. My clan is my family, my group...and your clan are outsiders, my enemies. This is another emotion with which we can sympathize, since we still do this all the time. Humans teach themselves to kill outsiders by removing any and all personal context from individuals. Once a member of different group is no longer a self-similar individual, but one part of a uniform blob of hostile intentions, they can be killed with little (at the time) damage to our sense of conscientiousness.

We have invented astounding ways around this problem of de-individuation. We actively insert other people's personal context into our daily lives. We can read about other people around the world simply by turning on the television, opening a newspaper, or going anywhere on the internet. The telephone allows us to talk to anyone anywhere...and while cynical philosophers love to tout that it has ruined human communication, it has also radically changed out definition of the other. Out-groups are no longer that tribe over there, but are speaking directly into your ear. Neanderthals did not have such extreme social luxury, they never saw outsiders on the newspaper or spoke to them on the telephone...outsiders were outsiders were outsiders. Neanderthals did not even have the complex trading connections that early humans did, which is a form of society that turns acquaintances into possible trading partners and eventually into possible friends. All of this evidence points to the fact that while it is easy enough for one human to kill another now, it would only have been even easier for one Neanderthal to kill another then. Humans are unique in that we can feel love and compassion towards someone not in our family or our tribe, people are outsiders only until we change our minds. Neanderthals probably could not do this to the extent that we can. Their family was their only in-group, everyone else was either a possible trading partner or someone to fight and kill.

No Autonoetic Thought

You might be asking yourself, what in the world is autonoetic thought? While it may not seem like a common personality trait and it is certainly not something which we come across on a daily basis...it is extremely common in humans. In fact, this trait is universal across all human cultures. What is this trait then? It is the recognition of an afterlife. All of us have such a recognition, regardless of our religion or lack thereof. We all understand that whatever the afterlife turns out to be, it will be different than the life here and now. Humans have taken this idea into consideration for quite some time, and this trait explains why humans around the world give such care to burials. This trait also explains why every religion includes some form of a life after life. So did Neanderthals think similar thoughts?

This question becomes difficult to solve when you want to know how people feel about the afterlife and you cannot ask them. The question becomes even more difficult when you are asking about an entirely different species. The most common archaeological evidence for this in humans are burials and grave goods. These phenomena give us an inclination that if we found these things at Neanderthal sites we could make similar extrapolations. Although this reasoning seems sound, we cannot absolutely know what made a Neanderthal build a tomb or construct a tumulus. While those activities in humans are representative of autonoetic thought, for other hominins they may only have been a memorial. They may only represent the once living, being unrelated to any idea of a life after that. Better evidence (in humans) of autonoetic thought is the presence of grave goods. Every human culture (until modernity) which left grave goods were preparing the dead for an afterlife. Yet even considering grave goods as presence of autonoetic thought is problematic. For other hominins, it is possible that the objects were only connected to the individual in life, if they brought memories of that individual or they were that individual's property. In that regard, Neanderthal grave goods may not show any thought about the afterlife as well.

While Neanderthals did (sometimes) make tombs or tumuli, sometimes they did not bury their family members at all. Neanderthals sometimes left grave goods, but when they did they left a couple stone tools or animal bones, most of the time they left nothing at all. While this is not direct evidence of any thought about the afterlife, it goes to show that Neanderthals had an idea about death which stands in stark contrast to our human notion. While it cannot be proven that Neanderthals did not have autonoetic thought at all, it was either not nearly as developed as in humans, or simply not there at all. The proof of this is found when comparing prehistoric human burials to the relatively simple Neanderthal graves.

An adult and two human children from the Gravettian culture were buried in Sungir Russia around 27 kya. By the time this burial took place, a sea change had occurred in the hominin mind. Here, we do see examples of autonoetic thought. One child was wearing leather clothing decorated with 3,000 beads, wearing a beaded leather cap, a painted stone pendant necklace, mammoth ivory arm bracelets, a belt with 250 fox teeth, a carved ivory animal pendant, an ivory sculpture of a mammoth, multiple ivory ornamental disks, and an ivory hunting spear. The rest of the group had dedicated hundreds of hours to preparing this one person for burial. While it is still possible that the ornamentation was simply a possession of the deceased, it is more likely that their culture had developed an idea of the afterlife. There is no other mental process which would compel people to spend so much time making things which would never be used except if they thought that the deceased would use those items in the afterlife. All of the ornamentation was preparing the individual for an afterlife, showing complex abstraction, imagination, and strong autonoetic thought. Other evidence for this is the fact that this child was buried with an ivory hunting spear. Ivory itself is brittle and would break after only one jab, contemporaneous humans did not use ivory for spears because it was commonly recognized as worse than flint or bone. Ivory spears are only found in burials. The ivory spear is worthless for the living, it is pointless to use in daily life...but it was included. The most reasonable explanation is that the deceased would have used it. This is evidence that they had a complex conception of the afterlife, not only was there hunting here but there was hunting there too. This is evidence that their afterlife included anything, evidence that their afterlife had meaning to them. If you enjoy hunting in this life, you will have an afterlife in which you enjoy hunting. This shows that their concept was imbued with meaning and connected to their culture.

The world's earliest non-controversial grave goods, from the burial at Sungir, 27 kya. On the left is a cloak pin, in the center is a horse figurine, and on the right is a strange disk. These items are sitting on top of the fox tooth belt
An illustrated reconstruction of the burial at Sungir, by Libor Balak. The graves are quite elaborate and show the development of autonoetic thought. The strange disk, which is seen here next to the head of the larger person, was fitted onto the end of a wooden lance, and was found sticking upwards when excavated. These disks may have been ornamental hilts or designed to prop up the lance, they true purpose and function are unknown

If Neanderthals did think that an afterlife existed, and if it included an individual who continued their living journey, its properties would alien to any human notion of such an afterlife. For Neanderthals, either grave goods were not transferred to the individual upon death, or objects were thought to be unnecessary for the individual in the afterlife. Since both of those ideas are not found in any human conception of the afterlife, either their idea was radically foreign to ours or simply they had no autonoetic thought. The concept of existence after this life is inherently tied to the human struggle to find meaning in an inherently meaningless world. A human who was a great hunter in this world, was given weapons so that they could continue hunting in the next. In the mind of that culture, hunting was given meaning outside of its necessary context. The tribe, then is given meaning too, as it is now the group's role in this life to give the deceased a proper burial and preparation. Giving a cultural meaning to hunting and to burial uses our ability to make abstractions to create self worth. It also shows that the tribe understands what that individual needs in the next life, showing an abstraction on their theory of mind. If Neanderthals had no autonoetic thought, they may not have found meaning to stretch past the life of an individual. That non-demonstrable abstraction which is the afterlife may have been, for a Neanderthal, unthinkable. If Neanderthals did experience autonoetic thought, their conception of it is, for us, unthinkable.

Conservatism, Xenophobia, and Close-mindedness

At the setting of the Neanderthal era, during the last few thousand years in which they lived on earth as genetically separate beings from ourselves – they invented the Chatelperronian industry. If recent dating evidence is held up, we could say for sure that Neanderthals independently thought up bone awls and ivory pendants. Even if this was the case, the Chatelperronian industry only stretches through parts of France and Spain and only lasts for a short period of time. It is a fascinating aberration from the dull normalcy of Neanderthal industry. In general, Neanderthals did not experiment. While Neanderthals did make the leap from Acheulean to Mousterian, once they reached that level they stagnated. For tens of thousands of years there was no innovation, no invention. It is almost inconceivable that millions of individuals lived for thousands of generations without changing nor improving on their technology. Well of course this is inconceivable for humans...there is something uniquely Homo Sapiens in our quest for advancement, in our undying curiosity about mechanics and generally everything. Neanderthals probably did not experience the notion of curiosity in the same way, or at least to the same fervent extent. Neanderthals strangely did not adopt human technology, even after contact. Some Neanderthals were even killed by atl-atls...yet no Neanderthal thought to use them.

“Neanderthals almost never came up with new ways of doing things. As important as it is to understand how Neanderthals might have innovated, it is important also to remember that they almost never did...This virtual absence is perhaps the single most important difference between Neanderthal technical thinking and ours.” -Thomas Wynn, Frederick Collidge.

Why did Neanderthals not innovate? It is impossible to pin that lack on any one particular issue. It was most likely a combination of factors stretching from situational circumstance to their innate mentality. On one hand, since there were so few Neanderthals compared to modern humans, the rate of invention was much lower. New individuals with new ideas were far and few between, compared to human bands. Even if new ideas entered one clan, how could they spread? With such small group sizes, a lack of large scale long distance trading, and possible extreme linguistic diversity...new ideas may have just petered out. It is possible that innovation was shunned, and inventions simply died with their inventors. Neanderthals probably shared a conservative and rigid view of their world. Their small group sizes and hostility to outsiders go hand in hand – products of their habits and minds as much as of their culture and lifestyle. If a clan encountered a new idea, it was probably rejected outright. A Neanderthal alpha may have valued tradition and familiarity over the risk of novelty. Compared to early humans, Neanderthals would be thought of as conservative, xenophobic, and close minded.

How would such a world-view become the dominant cultural trait of an entire species? It has a lot to do with the way one learns. “It is unlikely that Neanderthal children had more than a few active adults from whom to learn...a Neanderthal child...learned from watching a close relative.” -Thomas Wynn, Frederick Collidge. A Neanderthal child during youth was taught the Levallois technique of flake production. The child did not deviate from the technique, did not innovate, but mastered it as it was taught to them. Once that child became an adult, the technique was then passed down to another generation, and so on, for over 100,000 years. It is difficult to imagine how this could have been done, simply because humans act so radically different. Modern human youth is full of ideological plasticity, full of a constant yearning for the new and untried. While Neanderthal children may have shared a similar desire for personal betterment, that need was not fulfilled in the same manner. Youth was not marked by innovation and creativity, but by the adoption and replication of the proven techniques of your parents – any derivation from these proven tactics was seen as imperfect learning as opposed to inventive creation. 

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