Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Last Neanderthals

The Last Neanderthals

Humans stand in stark contrast to the isolation and tradition of Neanderthal culture. Every human generation, like each Neanderthal generation, adopted the toolkit of its parents. Except for us there was one major distinction: humans always questioned this toolkit. We were and still are actively adding to the list of known technology. This is one of the many issues which mentally and behaviorally separate us from Neanderthals. While there are many commonalities in the psychological behavior of Neanderthals, the separation in cognitive power certainly gave us an advantage. Examining this separation is vital to understanding how a disparity in thought became a disparity in dominance. We are not only asking why they perished but why we flourished. That question involves every aspect of our bodies, genes, minds, lifestyles, and our environment. “The differences in their skulls suggest early Homo divvied up the environment, each utilizing a slightly different strategy to survive.” -Susan Anton. We certainly did have a different strategy to survive, yet this evolutionary tactic did so much more. What began as traits to aid in our survival, became our indomitable conquest of the world. This was not planned, there were no great wars or political shifts. It was done by the hands and the genes of each individual human. Yet our conquest was slow, for thousands of years we coexisted with Neanderthals living side by side. Why did these last hominins die out, what happened to them?

mtDNA-based simulation of modern human genetic expansion in Europe starting around 1600 generations ago. Neanderthal range in light gray, human range in dark gray
A late Mousterian Neanderthal. This Neanderthal is wearing elements of the transitional Chatelperronian culture, one which adapted some human symbolic outlets yet continued Neanderthal stone industry. By Libor Balak
The final remnants of the continent-wide Mousterian culture began to decline between 45-40 kya. This is probably when most Mousterian Neanderthals died out. Chatelperronian Neanderthals (as well as Chatelperronian humans) died out in France and Spain also around this time, 40 kya. This was the final chapter in Neanderthal culture, yet it is also the final chapter in our two species' contact. The first contact (physical and genetic) had already occurred tens of thousands of years earlier in Asia.

Significant interbreeding between Neanderthals and early modern humans had probably occurred in Asia more than 50,000 years ago, so the dating evidence now indicates that the two populations could have been in some kind of contact with each other for up to 20,000 years, first in Asia then later in Europe.” -Chris Stringer.

For the life of a Neanderthal familial clan, over the course of thousands of years every day more and more of your territory contained large human hunting bands. We held a kind of power and dominance through our technology and our culture, and so complete was this dominance that Neanderthals could not overcome it nor rebound from it. The Mousterian Neanderthals who remained by 40 kya were pushed further and further into the badlands and onto the mountain tops of Europe. The Neanderthal eclipse was neither spatially nor temporally uniform, with some clans holding out in mountain refuges (called refugia) across Europe. At the moment, the presumption is that the final Neanderthals were in Europe, although the data for their decline in Asia is much more spare. For now, the evidence we have points us towards this European wane, and one such refuge is Gorham's Cave on the Rock of Gibraltar. The sight looking out from this cave may have been one of the last experiences of the living Neanderthal mind on earth.

Looking out from Gorham's Cave, Gibralter. It was at the time 5 kilometers from the seashore

A map of late Neanderthal holdouts (called refugia) in the Upper Paleolithic. Neanderthals may have continued in refugia such as Crimea, Croatia, southern England, and Iberia
Map charting the decline of Mousterian and the rise of Chatelperronian and Uluzzian. 45 kya Mousterian Neanderthals covered all of Europe. By 41 kya the last Chatelperronian Neanderthals had died out, and by 40 kya the only remnants of Mousterian culture (and Neanderthals) were in refugia. By 40 kya the dominant cultures in Europe had become Chatelperronian humans and Uluzzian/Aurignacian humans. From Tom Higham's 2014 study at Oxford

So what happened to the last Neanderthals? The most obvious answer is, in general, we happened. Human and Neanderthal contact changed their way of life, it disrupted their traditional habits and upended all aspects of their society. Anything that could have happened between us, probably did. There is evidence of both violence and interbreeding. Both of these factors are involved, as the reason for a civilizational decline is never within a single isolated issue but is spread across a range of internal and external factors.

The Economy of the Human Body

Examining the Neanderthal body in comparison to humans quickly reveals glaring differences in resource management. The most basic requirement for survival is food, and Neanderthals simply needed more of it than humans did. When we did eat food, we processed it more effectively than our evolutionary cousins. Some of the most important human-specific developments were in the conservation of energy, to fully utilize what we already had was more important than inventing new techniques. Excessive food requirements on Neanderthal communities put more pressure on their family clan structure to hunt and gather. This would have constrained the leisure time in which to think abstractly and innovate. The higher food requirement for Neanderthals also increased their dependence on their local environment. Any disruption to their food chain was uncontrollably disastrous. While a temporary collapse in a food source would cause starvation in the local human population, it would cause famine in the Neanderthal population.

The explanation is found in the overall morphological change in the body biotype that prevailed in our species compared to our ancestors. The Homo Sapiens had a slimmer body, lighter bones, longer legs, and were taller.” -Researchers with Carretero Diaz. Processing food was done differently, but hunting that food was also radically different. This novel human strategy for taking down large animals was not to directly confront them, in contrast with the highly successful Neanderthal strategy. Our technique was truly innovative, slowly over the course of days, we walk them to exhaustion. All of these physical advantages (slimmer body, lighter bones, longer legs, taller height) are beneficial to this hunting strategy. “Larger legs, narrower hips, being taller and having lighter bones not only meant a reduction in body weight (less muscular fat) but a bigger stride, greater speed, and a lower energy cost when moving the body, walking, or running.” -Carretero Diaz. While trailing an animal, we could move at such a pace that the animal is always tiring itself, yet we were never fully exhausted. The economies of many physical systems in our bodies were improved, such as our thermoregulatory, obstetric, and nutritional systems. We could fully realize the beneficial potential of this strategy since overall our differences combined to give our species more endurance and energy than other hominins. Not was this strategy better suited for our biotype, but when humans came back from the hunt, we brought back not only surplus food but the hunters safe and sound. There was a much higher chance for a Neanderthal to not come back from a hunt. For humans, if a hunter was injured in a dangerous confrontation with an animal, it was out of the ordinary. Whereas for those Neanderthals who had been injured, it was a common result.

Changing Climate and Ecosystem

In relying so heavily on their environment for stability and food, the lifestyle of a Neanderthal was highly dependent on a regular climate. “Unstable climate conditions favored the evolution of the roots of human flexibility in our ancestors.” -Richard Potts. The disruption of this regularity may have contributed significantly to their demise. Around 55 kya weather began to fluctuate wildly from extreme cold to mild cold over the course of only decades. This put extreme evolutionary pressure on Neanderthals to adopt new techniques, not over the course of generations, but during a single lifetime. The inability for a single generation to adopt a radically different lifestyle would have contributed to their decline. This may have been the first serious bump on their road to success, and at this time humans and Neanderthals were in contact in the Middle East and Asia. Possibly these climatic pressures drove Neanderthals onto the same territories as humans, stirring up both conflict and interbreeding. The changing climate saw the native forests of Europe recede into grasslands, disrupting the common Neanderthal tactic of the ambush.

Not only was the weather fluctuating, but multiple super volcanoes erupted during the waning of the Neanderthal epoch. Francesco Fedele has found that around 39 kya at Campi Flegrei near Naples Italy, a supervolcano blotted out the sun for months to years. It was the largest in 200,000 years. Liubov Golovanova has found that between 45-40 kya two supervolcanic eruptions covered (at least) eastern Europe. These triple eruptions between 45-39 kya would have killed many Neanderthals and humans, but whereas human populations could rebound from such a disaster Neanderthals could not. One striking difference in our societies was that the Neanderthal population peaked prior 40 kya at only 70,000 individuals with only 7,000 females able to give birth. Even if Neanderthals in general could rebound, it is likely that their genetic diversity could not, forcing more and more Neanderthals to breed with humans and to eventually enter human society. The extreme and quick variations in the climate during this period peaked at around 30 kya, if any Neanderthals were alive by that time (which is unlikely), this final blow would have killed them off.

A normal volcanic eruption. A supervolcano would be significantly more devastating, especially if there were three which effected Europe between 45-39 kya


Neanderthals did not only die of starvation, but some were outright killed by humans. Violence occurred when Neanderthals and humans competed for resources, particularly around rivers and valleys. One such point of conflict was the Danube, one of the main conduits for the early human entrance into Europe. There is even evidence that near the city of Perg in Austria, a camp of Neanderthals and humans lived at the same time directly across from each other. At nearby fords both humans and Neanderthals could get to the over bank, and at these territorial boundaries they must have seen each other. They most likely did know about each other, and probably were in direct competition over local resources. When humans and Neanderthals fought, the evidence is left in scars on their bones. The burial of Shanidar 3 was killed by a wound in the ribs. Wounded somehow, this Neanderthal was treated by its family yet died weeks later most likely from infection. This was not just another hunting accident, this was a spear wound. Researchers have determined that no thrusted or thrown spear could have made such a gash. When multiple techniques of injury were tested, the only one which came close to imparting such damage was the atl-atl.

A diagram of an atl-atl cast

Atl-atls are themselves not a weapon, but an accoutrement which improves a weapon. They are in effect both an extension and an improvement on our previous technology. It is essentially a curved stick which is held in the hand. You place the butt of a javelin in a notch at the back of the stick. As you swing the stick, the power and velocity of the thrown spear is amplified significantly. This makes javelins more than just throwing spears, they become effective and powerful long ranged weapons. This invention drastically improves the range and accuracy of javelins. While this improvement very much helped early humans, Neanderthals were no feeble enemy. If Neanderthals or humans ambushed each other, the side which attacked first surely had a huge advantage, regardless of the atl-atl. Ambushes were the primary Neanderthal hunting tactic, and they used it effectively to kill humans as well as any other animals they fought.

If a group of humans and Neanderthals fought each other in the open, both sides had a multitude of weapons and tactics, although humans had a serious advantage with their atl-atls. Yet while crafting an atl-atl is easy, crafting a good javelin is not and each human may have only had one or a few. This gave humans the upper hand when at an extreme distance, since human weaponry had a longer range than Neanderthal weapons. Once Neanderthals had closed that gap, or we had ran out of javelins, the equation changed. Neanderthals also had throwing spears, and in combination with more muscle their spears had more power behind them. Any human which was hit by a Neanderthal javelin was surely mortally wounded. As the distance closed even further, Neanderthals and humans both had throwing sticks (or boomerangs) which could kill if directed at a vulnerable spot. These weapons were also made more deadly in the hands of the stronger Neanderthals. Once the two sides met and were within melee range, both us and them had spears, hatchets, knives, and hand axes. In personal combat, Neanderthals were more proficient at grappling but humans had longer reach and more stamina. If we could keep them at bay and survive the initial contact, we had a good chance of winning in a fight. If a Neanderthal could grapple or disorient us, a few swift hits and we were dead. Human tribes were 2-4 times larger than Neanderthal clans, giving us a numerical advantage in combat. Warfare was and still is a messy affair, with Neanderthals and humans having different advantages in different situations. All the while something gave us an advantage, be it our intelligence, atl-atls, numerical superiority, or all three. While we had an advantage in long range combat, Neanderthals had an advantage in melee. Any particular victory or loss against a band of Neanderthals was more likely due to individual circumstances than to any large sweeping change.

A sketch of a Neanderthal, by Ossai. Found on Emmanuel Roudier's Neanderthal Blog

In the end, our long term evolutionary advantage was probably only hunting and conserving energy better than strictly combat. Although once the Neanderthals' ecological niche disappeared, it is easy to see how a hunting party of 20 youth and adult humans armed with atl-atls on flat grasslands could decimate a mixed age clan of only 8-15 Neanderthals. Perhaps our hunting strategy did not change when confronting Neanderthals, and as if they were another herd of deer we walked them to exhaustion over the course of days. Finally the Neanderthal clan would come to a stop: terrified, exhausted, and in the open. The band of humans could easily surround them and kill them at range, then the Neanderthals were looted and eaten. A gruesome end to our cousins, yet for humans the first step towards our current world dominance. We no longer had to fear any animal, not even our closest evolutionary competitor.

Human Cultural Advantages

Some researchers, such as Steven Kuhn and Mary Stiner, argue in their paper Paleolithic Diet and the Division of Labor in the Mediterranean Eurasia that developments in early human culture contributed to the demise of Neanderthals. Since human dominance was achieved by a statistically higher birth rate, they argue that some cultural development must have favored the lives of women and children. Possibly this was the creation of the division of labor based upon gender.

On the basis of zooarchaeological, technological, and demographic evidence...the complementary economic roles of men and women so typical of ethnographically documented hunter-gatherers did not appear in Eurasia until the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic. The rich archaeological record of Middle Paleolithic cultures in Eurasia suggests, by contrast, that earlier hominins pursued narrowly focused economies, with women's activities closely aligned to those of men with respect to schedules and territory use patterns...More broadly based economies, as indicated both by the faunal record and the increasing complexity of foraging and related technologies, appeared earliest in the eastern Mediterranean region and spread (with modification) to the north and west. The behavioral changes associated with the Upper Paleolithic record signal a wider range of economic and technological roles in forager societies, and these changes in adaptation may have provided the expanding Homo Sapiens populations with a demographic advantage over other hominins in Eurasia.” -Mary Stiner and Steven Kuhn.

For hunter-gatherer societies in which males only hunt, not surprisingly they end up dying more often than females. If prehistoric humans followed this hunting strategy, it would have been a serious advantage over Neanderthals. If Neanderthal hunting bands included women, pregnant women, or children, they would have been put in serious danger due to Neanderthals' close combat style. Although there is no surefire method to prove the existence or non-existence of gender roles during this period – when common injuries among Neanderthals are examined, 87% of their head and neck injuries (hunting injuries) occurred on males. This is evidence that Neanderthal males were the ones getting up close and personal with the large game they were hunting. Even if Neanderthal males were the ones to confront animals on the hunt, they may have brought women and children along, increasing their chances of accidental death or injury. In the end, to make statements about Neanderthal culture you have to point at things which are invisible in the fossil record. It is just as likely that some other cultural factor increased the reproductive rates of humans which was unrelated to the creation of gender roles.

First Contact

Models of both a Neanderthal (foreground) and a Homo Sapiens (background) at London's Natural History Museum (both of the actual models are life sized and completely nude)

Thomas Wynn and Frederick Collidge give a thrilling account of how Neanderthal and Human contact would have happened. It all starts with a young child, an out-migrant, entering the territory of another clan. This child brings rumors of strange creatures, they resemble ourselves but they are taller, dark skinned, wear tailored clothing, and are raggedly thin and poorly muscled. These creatures have strange heads, with diminutive features. This rumor may have been spread around one clan, maybe surrounding clans, but it eventually died out and was forgotten. Neanderthals had no impetus to discover who these people were, rumors of dangerous strangers may have only fomented feelings of fear and xenophobia. Hundreds, if not thousands of years later, the clan catches their first glimpse of these new creatures. First they see the hunting parties, huge bands of tall dark skinned men, using atl-atls and shooting spears much further than any Neanderthal had seen before. These bands roamed great distances to run down animals, in the process passing through many different clans' territories. Any animals injured yet able to escape, would be found by Neanderthals with broken bone and antler spear heads. Such tools were unknown in the (Mousterian) Neanderthal world. Neanderthals also saw other bands of humans, groups of only women and children. Gathering and using nets to catch small game, they hunted apart from the bands of men. Humans would build devices to trap animals and return later to harvest them. Neanderthals may have encountered these traps by accident, injured by an inconceivably complex contraption. What would they have thought, who would they have blamed? It must have seemed like yet another aspect of the world intent on killing them.

Two models of a Neanderthal and a human face to face. The Neanderthal model was created by a team of researchers led by Jez Gibson-Harris and with help from Viktor Deak. Humans at this time were probably not pale skinned

At some point, humans were no longer just a rumor. A Neanderthal spying on a band of humans would see them spreading their camps out across large portions of a cave, not only at the entrance. Humans would build giant fires, too large to fit food over, and when others were out hunting the older members kept these bonfires going. After a meal, humans would continue to sit at these fires and simply talk for hours. Telling long elaborate stories and keeping each others' close attention. Around such fires, humans would sing and dance, some even playing drums or bird bone flutes. If Neanderthals could understand music, hearing this would have been an ecstatic joy. If Neanderthals themselves made music, listening to human music would have been uniquely pleasurable. It gave them emotions which they either had never experienced or were not expecting. If a Neanderthal's conception of music was only the voice, hearing music from a piece of bone would have been awe inspiring. If Neanderthals were not musical, such noise was violent, frightening, and confusing. Melodies and harmonies which lacked meaning were an impossibly strange and alien phenomenon only associated with violent foreigners. Even if Neanderthals understood music and rhythm, to hear such a phenomenon at a distance would be absolutely terrifying. You had never heard such a thing before in your life, and had no reference as to whether it was a signal of safety or death. If you had previous bad interactions with humans, and associated the music with them...it signified your impending death. To hear war music from the enemy camp at night and to not even know what music is only amplifies its terror.

A human child next to a model of a Neanderthal at the Neanderthal Museum in Mettmann, Germany

Some (or all) humans carved ivory. People were spending hours to make a realistic miniature figurine. This would have been very puzzling to a Neanderthal...why would someone make it, what is its use? They would have no ability to even begin to answer these questions. If one was found by a Neanderthal, it may have been kept as an interesting object (a curio). If a Neanderthal did see such a thing, they either never thought to recreate it or only made it in wood. Most likely Neanderthals did not have a symbolic or narrative culture, and Neanderthal children would not have played with abstract toys. An ivory mammoth was used by human children within imaginary worlds, it was actor in a grand story with a beginning, middle, and end, complete with excitement and suspense. Maybe a Neanderthal child did not understand how to craft such a story. Maybe the Neanderthal mind could not turn a figure which represents reality into an actor which represents imagination. If Neanderthals did make figurines out of stone, they were uncommon, although if Neanderthals made figures out of wood they could have been as commonplace as at human camps. Thomas Wynn and Frederick Collidge assert that if Neanderthals did made carvings, it would have been figures of females. Regardless it would have struck a Neanderthal dumbfounded to use ivory, or to make a mammoth. At the moment it is more likely that Neanderthals did not make figurines, as such things are not found even at later Chatelperronian sites who extensively carved ivory trinkets. If that is the case, what would a Neanderthal have seen if they looked at an ivory mammoth carving? They may have seen it as what it is, a mammoth – yet without the human afterthought I want one. They may have seen something, without truly understanding what it was, maybe one step away from connecting the dots. Lastly they may have not seen anything at all. Since it was neither a shell nor a weapon it was too abstract. Maybe they were unable to connect an abstract image of an object to the corresponding image of that thing in real life.

Viktor Deak next to a model Neanderthal he helped create for the BBC

Former German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck at the Neanderthal Museum in Mettmann, Germany

Humans traveled long distances, with smaller groups of a only couple humans leaving their tribe for weeks if not months to travel. When these bands would return they brought with them strange foreign artifacts. Trade objects were treated as interesting not only for their utility but for their exoticism. Trade was a way of seeing the outside world, of satiating our curiosity of the unknown. In this environment of foreign trade and hospitality, strangers were not treated with outright suspicion. All of this was abnormal in a Neanderthal's daily routine. One day, a Neanderthal clan is approached by some members of a nearby human tribe. Lacking communication, both groups keep their distance. The humans, in an attempt to replicate their culture, leave trinkets on the ground and back away. These humans expect the Neanderthals to understand that they too should leave requisite items on the ground in an exchange of equal value. Hypothetically during a trade, Neanderthals would look at two objects and see in both of them some abstract judgment of what is it worth to me. they then make a quick cost-benefit analysis and decide if one object is worth trading for the other. Thomas Wynn and Frederick Collidge think that we are expecting too much from them. If Neanderthals did not understand that trades were between objects of equal value, they may have just grabbed what the humans left. To a Neanderthal this was obviously a gift. The humans, angered at this theft, may have confronted the clan, but that would have only led to violence and more xenophobia. While Neanderthals were able to trade amongst themselves, trading one precious stone for another, they could not handle the complexity of multiple variables. Humans wanted to trade a precious stone for X, Y, and Z, instantly asking questions of value which a Neanderthal could not understand. To make sense of and to find worth in confusing complexity is quite the human hallmark. If trading was unsuccessful maybe we had a tacit agreement to steer clear of each other, yet if it was successful it only inspired further human encroachment. All the while humans and Neanderthals were living in the same areas for thousands of years, besides trading what else happened during our two species' contact?

A wonderful cartoon of a Neanderthal and a human, sadly I could not find its source

That Other Kind of Interaction

If we ever had any tacit agreement with a Neanderthal clan, that agreement as with all treaties ever signed by humans would have been immediately broken. Humans are inherently opportunistic, and when your band meets new people many opportunities arise. There is a remarkable amount of evidence we interbred with Neanderthals, not only genetic evidence but fossil evidence as well. Gene flow from the Neanderthal population was strictly from them-to-us, and not the other way around. This means that any Neanderthal and Human offspring either formed its own band of hybrids or joined human bands. Hybrids may not have been accepted by xenophobic Neanderthals, showing not only their callousness but their inability to accept beneficial change. It is impossible to know if there was any one way in which humans and Neanderthals interacted, it was most likely a combination of all possible ways. Sometimes group interactions resulted in violence, and other times maybe simple trading was possible. If groups got to know each other, both humans and Neanderthals have a tradition of group-butchery projects, which is a great way to cement trust and build relationships. Possibly Neanderthals and humans fell in love with one another, forming mixed race clans (which were eventually adopted back into the human gene pool). Yet humans and Neanderthals did fight, and in warfare there is always sexual violence. Since matches were mostly between Neanderthal women and human men, it is possible that some hybrids were born from post-conquest debauchery. It is nice to know that there is evidence against this...since humans and Neanderthals at the time were cannibals, when a tribe was conquered they were all butchered and eaten.

The fossil record shows an interesting story, one of prehistoric Europe as a genetic and cultural melting pot of hominins. Every corner of the Neanderthal range includes sites of hybridization. One of the sites where Neanderthals and humans first crossed paths, Amud Cave in Israel, a Neanderthal skeleton was found exhibiting features of interbreeding. This Neanderthal was 6 feet tall and lacked the large brow ridge and other standard Neanderthal features. At Abrigo do Lagar Velho Portugal, a child who died around age 4 was buried with pierced shells and painted with ochre around 24.5 kya. This child is neither human nor Neanderthal, sharing a mosaic of both species' features in its cranium, mandible, dentition, and postcrania. Hybrids have also been found in Romania, a person who lived around 30 kya was found with anterior skull swelling, an occipital bun, and a particular muscle arrangement at the back of their jaw. All of these features were lost by humans before we left Africa, yet were added back into our population by mixing with Neanderthals. In northern Italy a hybrid skeleton was found who lived between 30-40 kya, yet humans entered (southern) Italy around 45 kya. Thousands of years after first contact and the last Neanderthal hybrids still existed. “We could interbreed with them, we could have fertile children, and...some of these children became incorporated in the human community, reproduced, and contributed to present day humans.” -Svante Paabo.

A reconstruction of a late Neanderthal child buried at Gibraltar, Spain

While Neanderthals and humans interbred seemingly everywhere, places like Spain, Italy, and the Danube basin had significant interaction. Southern Europe in particular was a hotbed of activity pun intended. Today, modern southern Europeans share more Neanderthal DNA than the average European, specifically the region of Tuscany Italy has the most Neanderthal DNA. Vindija cave in Croatia is a remarkable example of how humans supplanted Neanderthals. At first, Mousterian Neanderthals inhabited the cave. Then for a period Neanderthals here used a mixture of Mousterian and upper Paleolithic tools, showing a mixing of regional cultures. Then suddenly, the fossils switch and you find human Aurignacians. These early humans used a mixture of upper Paleolithic and Neanderthal technology. Thousands of years later, this early human toolkit morphed into the complex Gravettian, evidence that our march to world dominance picked up speed. We did not just enter Europe and wide Neanderthals out, our cultures mixed over the course of thousands of years. We did not hunt them to extinction, we merged with them. While some Neanderthals died from the changing climate, those who survived probably had to interbreed with us, slowly coming under the Homo Sapiens genetic fold. While we do not have uncontroversial direct proof of contact, “we don't have a site where we have a human and a Neanderthal buried next to each other...I'm still waiting for that.” -Erik Trinkaus, we do have many examples of indirect evidence. This evidence is found across Europe and Asia, there is no place where humans and Neanderthals did not interbreed.

Vindija Cave, Croatia

The First Humans in Europe

Over thousands of years, all separate hominins were either dead or re-adopted into Homo Sapiens. So who were these first humans? There are two competing theories as to how and when humans entered Europe because there were in general two transitional human cultures. Although researchers may argue over who was the first, both cultures contributed to the quick human dominance of Europe. The first theory posits that the Bohunician transitional culture was the first distinctively human industry in Europe. This culture is mostly found in central Europe (and most likely eastern Europe), evolving from the Emiran culture in the Levant. This culture would have spread from the mouth of the Danube around 48 kya, slowly continuing upstream until reaching their namesake of the Czech Republic. This culture used an advanced version of the Levallois technique, both mirroring and improving on Mousterian technology. Bohunician would have been a mix of cultures, sharing some traits from Neanderthal culture, and other traits from human culture. Regardless of whether Bohunician was the first, it was completely replaced by Aurignacian humans by 40 kya.

Libor Balak's depiction of the Bohunician culture. This piece is a mural created for the city of Brno, with help from historical consultants Miriam Fisakova Nyvltova and Petr Skrdla

Libor Balak's depiction of Bohunician stone spears. Bohunician stone points have been found made from hornblende and radiolarite

The eco-cultural niche of the Emiran industry and its derivatives. The Emiran (proto-Bohunician) culture is in green. The Bohunician culture is in red
Early human cultures in Europe. The Aurignacians (dark triangles) were found in Italy, southern France, and northern Spain. The Bohunicians (dark rectangles) were found in Bulgaria, Romania, and the Czech Republic. The non-filled in shapes show the full extent of industries. Diamonds show the range of Bohunician culture. Triangles show the range of Human or Neanderthal Chatelperronian. Circles and squares show derivative proto-Aurignacian cultures in southern Europe: The Uluzzian in Italy and S.I.L.M.P. in Spain
A forensic reconstruction of a woman who lived at Abri-Pataud France, 47-17 kya

The other theory posits that the first truly human industry was proto-Aurignacian. This culture evolved out of the Ahmarian culture also in the Levant, spreading into south-central and then south-western Europe (and possibly eastern Europe). This human culture also spread from the mouth of the Danube into central Europe, but also had branches going west into Greece and Italy around 45-44 kya. These proto-Aurignacians entering southern Italy developed their own culture, briefly existing as the Uluzzians. While Bohunician culture flourished in central Europe, proto-Aurignacians held the most fertile land in Italy, France, and Spain. The dawn of large scale human cultures did not immediately signal the end of Neanderthal ones. Around the time of the entrance of proto-Aurignacians into Europe, Neanderthals in southern France developed their Chatelperronian culture, either independently or from human inspiration. This separate Neanderthal culture flourished for thousands of years, with local humans also adopting it. While their end did not come immediately, all Neanderthal cultures had died out by 40 kya. If pockets in refugia did survive past this point, they had became outsiders in an human world.

An Aurignacian man with equipment who would have lived around 43-30 kya. This depiction is based on remains found in the Mladec locality in the Czech Republic. Although humans at the time had no invented bows, they had throwing darts possibly with fletching. By Libor Balak
Aurignacian bone spear points. The bone points were found near Olomouc, Czech Republic. By Libor Balak

A map showing the spread of Proto-Aurignacian, and its southern Italian cousin Uluzzian. Originating in the Levant around 47-49 kya, proto-Aurignacian spread into the Balkan Danube delta by 46 kya. From there, by 44-43 kya it had spread up the Danube and into southern Italy. By 42-41 kya it had spread through northern Spain, southern France, Italy, and eastern Europe. By 40 kya Aurignacians had populated the entirety of Europe

Disregarding which culture entered Europe first, both proto-Aurignacian and Bohunician existed side-by-side for a couple thousand years. What is certain is that around 41 kya proto-Aurignacian culture had metamorphosed into Aurignacian, and spread colonies across every part of Europe. By 40 kya Aurignacians had replaced all human derivatives, including any remaining Mousterian humans, Chatelperronian in France and Spain, Uluzzian in southern Italy, and Bohunician in the Czech Republic. Human culture had exploded, and came to dominate all competitors. Due to Tom Higham's research the final Mousterian Neanderthal lived around 41,030-39,260 years ago (95.4% probability), and J. J. Hublin's research has put the final Chatelperronian Neanderthal around 41.5 kya. During these crucial years, between 42-40 kya, humans were finally coming out from Italy and central Europe. During this time, they colonized the rest of western Europe, from England to Catalonia. This is presumably when the last Neanderthal of any culture died out, yet it is also the eclipse of Chatelperronian and Uluzzian humans as well. The dominant society was not only Homo Sapiens, but specifically Aurignacian Homo Sapiens. The period of European contact between Neanderthals and humans, which occurred between 45-40 kya, lasted about 250 human generations and took place around 2,000 generations ago. While the Aurignacian culture has been forgotten, this period has left its mark in our current genome.

Recent dating showing the end of the Mousterian period around Europe, from Tom Higham's research

Recent dating showing the beginning and end of the Uluzzian and Chatelperronian industries in Europe, from Tom Higham's research

The range of Aurignacian culture by 41-40 kya, having become the dominant human cultural industry in Europe
A German Aurignacian man carving the Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel, around 40 kya. By Libor Balak
The Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel, found in a cave in southern Germany, made around 40 kya

During this period of Neanderthal civilizational collapse, humans began to make unique art objects. The Lion Man is a beautiful example of one such artifact. The figure represented, the meaning, and the gender of the statue are unknown. We cannot know those fine mental details, what thoughts came to an early human's mind when they carved such a figure. What we do know, is that it is the earliest piece of anthropomorphic art in the world. This figure is significant because it is not real, whatever it is it's imaginary. A creature imbued with meaning unknown in the real world. Humans could make anthropomorphic statues and later would leave hundreds of miniature animal statues at their camps. The Neanderthal record contains neither. Figurines were not the only unique items produced during this time, between 43-40 kya the first cave paintings were produced (most likely by humans) in Iberia. Also between 43-42 kya Aurignacians in Germany were making bone and ivory flutes. This time could truly be called an Aurignacian golden age, yet the dominance of Aurignacian culture in the fossil record foretells the demise of our hominin cousins. While Neanderthals could adapt their Mousterian toolkit with Upper Paleolithic ivory and bone ornaments (the Chatelperronian culture), they could not make further innovations. It is this period in which human culture radically cleaves itself from Neanderthal culture, resulting in successive advancement and Neanderthal stagnation. Neanderthals may have survived through this period in refugia, but it is unlikely or so minor that it has not been found yet.

A figurine of a lion, made from mammoth ivory. Found at the Vogelherd cave in southwest Germany and also made around 40 kya

Libor Balak's depiction of the imagined Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel. This depiction represents not what it actually was, but shows us what we can imagine in such a piece. We can imagine combining a lion's head and a human body. This abstract unrealistic portrayal of a creature may have been unrecognizable to a Neanderthal

The earliest miners, Aurignacians in what is now Egypt. Such larger scale mining began around 38-35 kya. Illustration by Libor Balak

If any Neanderthals survived through the 30,000s, they would have been awestruck by the pace of human change. Between 33-22 kya a novel culture arose in eastern Europe, the Gravettians. This culture quickly spread from eastern Europe, supplanting the native Aurignacian toolkit. These new Homo Sapiens took symbolic culture to an extreme. Those who died were buried with high ornamentation, significantly more than their Aurignacian predecessors. People were buried in head to toe leather outfits containing thousands of interwoven beads. By this period, human camps commonly show the remains of high art, hundreds of ivory animals litter sites. These humans build larger structures, and at Abri Pataud a large house was 23 feet long by 10 feet across, containing 5 simultaneously active hearths. That is about 226 square feet of space, significantly more than the needs of one family. This culture intertwined abstraction and symbolism into their clothing and appearance. Humans began to give everything around them abstraction. This culture put an immense amount of time and effort into planning ahead, not only showing their intellectual acuity but their cooperative advantage over the Aurignacians. Such social complexity would have been lost on any possible lingering Neanderthals. Probably by the time Gravettian culture had complex dominance over Europe, the Neanderthals were a distant memory.

A Gravettian male wearing beaded clothing, showing the explosion in symbolic thought during this period. By Libor Balak
A Gravettian woman wearing a hat inspired by the Venus of Brassempouy, by Libor Balak

The Venus of Brassempouy, a Gravettian ivory statuette made around 25 kya. It is unknown whether the figure is wearing a type of hat or a type of hairstyle

An absolutely remarkable figurine made of mammoth ivory about 26 kya by Gravettians. It was buried with a man who died in his 40s near Brno, Czech Republic. It has a notch at the base of its head which allowed the head to swivel, its arms could move to. While the legs have not been found, they may also have been mobile. This piece is the world's earliest doll, and shows the extreme symbolic advances in Gravettian thought across Europe
A Gravettian family from Sungir Russia, wearing their burial outfits. A hypothetical log long house is in the background. In this picture, teh family are wearing elaborate beaded clothing which was found on their bodies at the burial site. Each bead took around an hour to make, and on the child's clothing alone there are 3,000+ beads. These ornate clothes were probably not their every day wear, and probably not made for them after their burial. Possibly the clothes were their formal wear which they were buried in. Their expensive clothing may also be a sign of their wealth, and the Sungir burial may be the first evidence in human culture of a material disparity. Illustration by Libor Balak
A Gravettian community. Gravettians at Sungir made large houses which would have been shelter to multiple families, although there is no evidence (as far as I can tell) of rectangular log houses. There is archaeological evidence of Gravettian housing, they would make multiple small oval stone houses or a single large oval long house, also made of stone. The earliest account of a log house is in the Bronze Age, yet it is conceivable that they would have been built much earlier. Illustration by Libor Balak
A Moravian Gravettian woman (29-25 kya) wearing a hat, by Libor Balak

Moravian Gravettians (29-25 kya) in a canoe, by Libor Balak
An artist's rendition of Magdalenian reindeer hunters. This culture existed from 17-12 kya in Europe. By this time, tens of thousands of years after the death of Neanderthals, humans had developed sophisticated hunting tools and commonly made cave paintings

Libor Balak standing in front of an exhibition he helped create, at the Archaeopark Prehistoric Museum in Vsestary, Prague


  1. new evidence as of 12/1/14 points to some discrepancies. neandertals mated with sapiens, but only at the first meeting around 50 kya. a mystery is why they didn't continue to mate over the next 15 thousand years.
    also the neandertal were smarter than first thought. in fact, most technological and artistic advances came not from sapiens in africa. new evidence shows that the advances actually originated from the hybrid sapien/neandertal culture and spread back INTO AFRICA. this is postulated by the evidence showing the first advanced flake tools were in actual possession of early neandertal outside africa. other cultural traits like burying the dead were a neandertal only habit.

    the theory goes that advances in culture did not appear simultaneously across the globe, but sprung from the descendants of sapiens and neandertals and spread out. possibly a genetic mix of different mental abilities caused the rapid technology advance of around 50kya, which roughly coincides with the first and main interbreeding of the two different species.

    it is now thought that sapiens didn't mix much with neandertal. DNA analysis of a femur from siberia points to the same mixture 40kya ago as today. however, the length of gene sequences gives the date of interbreeding as within ten thousand years previous.

    so, it might be likely that there was only one or two neandertal women that ever mated with a homo sapien. that special couple are an adam and eve- type that produced a change in the development of mankind that spread their genes to all euroasians.

  2. Here is a possible story to try to twist everything together:

    one of the early small tribes of sapiens from out of africa and in the near east ran into some neandertals while exploring and came out on the wrong end.

    the tribe was wiped out and eaten except for a baby that a barren or elderly neandertal women couldn't let die and begged her chieftain to keep. she raise him as a neandertal and he grew in their ways, learning their culture and sounds for communication. when he was old enough to mate, he mated. the offspring were somehow quickly reintegrated back into the sapien culture, either by being treated as outcasts and rejoining a sapien tribe or being captured by sapiens.

    the hybrids were sufficiently hardy enough to survive and spread their genes with the few that were in the area. ad they prospered, they grew antsy and they eventually migrated north, splitting into three of four groups; some going east, some going west and others continuing north.