Neandertals and Humans Share More Than Blood
Our distant cousin, the Neandertals, were once believed to be ignorant, speechless, and noncognitive (except for the ones representing Geico), like in the TV episode, Beer Bad from season four of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (hail to the Buffy nerds!).
However, like us homo sapiens, Neandertals were also animals, and animals have an innate purpose to survive and understand the premeditated methods to do so. This family member of ours lived throughout Europe and parts of Asia before us, and overlapping us, until about 40 ka (thousand years ago). We do not know if they had a religious belief system in place, but it’s likely it was some form of Animism, Pantheism, or something entirely different than traditional Western thought. However, we do know from archeology that they practiced burying their dead within circles of chosen artifacts of stones and animal bones and horns. Science says this might have strictly been practiced preventing disease and predators, but I feel like it was also from emotional intent and care; ritualized within circles.
Regardless, it has been the ongoing topic of scientific debate on whether deliberate intent and cognition, especially regarding symbolic behavior, has always been uniquely specific to homo sapiens, our modern human ancestors, or if the two groups shared this behavior. Symbolic behavior is the thought and action of symbolism to organize behavior between cultural continuity between and across generations and contemporaneous communities. Symbolism marks the transition from when humans became modern (hence the debate).
That is until a recent uranium-thorium (UTh) dating system just dropped the mic. Carbonate formations from red and black pigmented cave art in three Spanish caves: La Pasiega of Cantabria, Maltravieso of Extremadura, and Doña Trinidad (or Ardales) of Andalucía; were thought to have originated from modern humans who migrated to Europe from Asia and the Middle East around 40 ka. Because after all, this art was too complicated in thought and intention for its authors to have been Neandertals. It consisted of anamorphic forms, dots, lines and geometric shapes, animals (deer, horses, and birds), and hand stencils. The UTh results were dumbfounding.
In La Pasiega, the drawings dated back 64.8 ka; and in Maltravieso, a hand stencil dated back 66.7 ka. Both of which predate modern humans’ arrival in Europe by over 20,000 years! In Ardales, however, the findings were more uniquely varied. Some of the paintings at this location dated 45 ka, some 32.1 ka, and others 64.8 ka. Based on excavated Neandertal skeletons in the Iberian Peninsula, we know this region was vastly inhabited by them, and thus, they were also the drawings’ authors; giving proof that these cavemen not only had symbolic behavior but critically thought out where best to paint these symbols and tell their tales. It was a form of communication never before accepted within the scientific community; that Neandertals and early modern humans were mentally indistinguishable. Furthermore, Ardales deserves more attention from the gravity of its discovery because if Neandertals were entirely gone by 40,000 years ago, then why were some of its paintings dated 32 ka? This provides an insight into not only a collective symbolic behavior, but the socially transcultural progression of passing traditions over the span of several generations and groups of people.
And as if that’s not enough, in February, UTh dating was done on sea shells found in Cueva de los Aviones; a sea cave in southeast Spain, that has red and yellow painted pigments on them and intentionally drilled holes. The UTh results dated these shells to 120 ka!
This proves that our relation to Neandertals are not bound strictly by DNA, but by the shared humanity of understanding, the importance of storytelling, and ritualizing rites of passage. The more we segregate and conceit ourselves from the history of Earth’s species and where we come from, the more this is mirrored toward our human peers within our day-to-day activities, and to the shared animals of our planet. In the book, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown, there is a line I will never forget that stated in March of 1866, Colonel Maynadier was said to be “surprised to see tears well up in Spotted Tail’s eyes; he didn’t know that an Indian can weep”. How can we allow ourselves to be open-minded and accepting of others’ differences, if we refuse to let go previous notions on how we perceive ourselves; immortalizing ignorance on cognitive superiority? I remember in my High School Biology class my teacher played us a movie called, Why Dogs Smile and Chimpanzees Cry. The 1999 film teaches that wild and domestic animals do portray signs of complex emotions and expressions, unlike the way I was brought up to believe. I’m not saying that Pomeranians sit in dimly lit studies, smoking pipes, and discuss quantum physics. But If Vogelkop bowerbirds can build beautiful, unique gardens that outdo their neighbors’, then cavemen can draw the birds that fly over their heads.
To quote the character, Anya from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 7: “You came into the world with certain advantages, sure. I mean, that’s the legacy. …That doesn’t make you better than us, it makes you luckier than us”.
Kansas Stanton is a Naturalistic Neo-Pagan who resides in Seattle, Washington. He belongs to, and practices with, a local group of Reform Pagans and blogs at https://leavesontheroad.wordpress.com/. He also volunteers every year at the Esoteric Book Conference in Seattle and regularly attends various Pagan festivals and events.
He is a full-time student, earning his degree in Environmental Science and a Certificate in Sustainability, after which time he will move on to law school to receive his Juris Doctor in Environmental Law. When Kansas is not in class or working his job in the art industry, he also attends heavy metal concerts both locally and internationally. He is also a vegan outdoorsman who frequents the trails and whitewater rivers of the pacific northwest and loves to spend his time with friends over a cold, dark beer.
Never once doubted this sort of behavior or cognitive development among Neanderthals, but then I did almost exclusively study the period of cohabitation between them and h. sapiens in the Iberian peninsula for multiple assignments toward my BA in Anthropology. 😉 The Ardales site merely suggests to me that h. neanderthalensis began a behavioral pattern (paintings) and h. sapiens added to it later to honor and seek spiritual relationship with “the ancient ones” who’d come before. You know, as one would.
Very likely, Dayan. There’s a lot of theories and speculations we could draw from this information and I imagine you’d know more about it than me! Either way, it’s still pretty cool and especially with the hard evidence of symbolic behavior from neandertals. Thanks for your input!