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Neanderthals Arranged Homes Much Like Modern Humans, Study Suggests

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Dec 03, 2013 09:22 PM EST
Neanderthals may have gone extinct thousands of years ago, but their genomic lineage lives on, particularly in skin and hair traits, a new study published in the journal Nature found. (Photo : Reuters)

Adding to the growing body of evidence that Neanderthals were much more than the grunting, ape-like creatures so often portrayed in today's stereotypes, researchers have uncovered signs that our extinct relative organized their homes much like modern humans.

Published in the Canadian Journal of Archaeology, the study centers on a collapsed rock shelter known as Riparo Bombrini, which Neanderthals inhabited for thousands of years before modern humans later made it their home. There researchers found signs that Neanderthals compartmentalized their living spaces based on the various activities in which they engaged.

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"There has been this idea that Neanderthals did not have an organized use of space, something that has always been attributed to humans," said Julien Riel-Salvatore, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado Denver and lead author of the study. "But we found that Neanderthals did not just throw their stuff everywhere but in fact were organized and purposeful when it came to domestic space."

Three distinct archaeological levels belonging to Neanderthals were identified at the site, with the oldest dating back some 45,000 years.

Based on the amount of animal remains found in the top level, the site appears to have been used for a time as a place to kill and prepare game. The researchers discovered ochre, which could have been used for anything from tanning to gluing, toward the back of the shelter. "We found some ochre throughout the sequence but we are not sure what it was used for," Riel-Salvatore said.

The middle level was bursting with signs of occupation. Animal bones and stone tools congregated in the front of the cave and evidence of a hearth was found in the back. The researchers explained that, given these remains, the place probably served as a long-term base camp at one point.

And finally, within the bottom level, believed to represent a short-term base camp, the archaeologists unearthed stone artifacts just inside the cave's mouth, perhaps signifying that tool production went on where sunlight would have been most ample.

All in all, the site is one of clear order and design, Riel-Salvatore explained, arguing that if "we are going to identify modern human behavior on the basis of organized spatial patterns, then you have to extend it to Neanderthals as well."

He is not the first to suggest the species may have exceeded the standards set by modern stereotypes.

Earlier this year, a team of researchers from the University at Southampton published a study indicating Neanderthals were something of artisans when it came to their tools.

Led by Karen Reubens from the Center for Archaeology of Human Origins, the group analyzed the designs of more than 1,300 Neanderthal stone hand axes taken from 80 sites throughout Europe. The results revealed regional differences in styles that were passed on generation to generation.

"Making stone tools was not merely an opportunistic task," Ruebens said. "A lot of time, effort and tradition were invested and these tools carry a certain amount of socio-cultural information, which does not contribute directly to their function."

Not only did Neanderthals exhibit care for their tools, but a study published last fall in the journal PLOS ONE asserts the species may have harvested bird feathers to ornament themselves, or perhaps for symbolic purposes - a hypothesis the study's authors called "revolutionary" as it "assigns unprecedented cognitive abilities to these hominins."

It's studies like these that are "contributing to the 'rehumanization' of Neanderthals that has been underway for the past 10-15 years or so," Riel-Salvatore told Nature World News.

"I think that we're now starting to get a much more 'human' view of Neanderthals than has traditionally been the case."

Coming "very soon," the researcher said, is a second analysis comparing the ways Riparo Bombrini's Neanderthal inhabitants arranged the cave to the early modern humans who followed. Previous studies contrasting how the two kinds of hominids used space have always looked at different sites, which "may be partly to blame for differences observed between the spatial organization of the two species," Riel-Salvatore said.

"Thus, when the latter analysis is complete, we will be able to directly compare how the two kinds of hominids organized their space, since the setting ... did not change appreciably between the time Neanderthals and, later, modern humans lived at the site."

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