What The Shanidar Cave Burials Tell Us About Neanderthals

The term ‘Neanderthal’ has become synonymous with the type of behaviour associated with ‘sluggish’, ‘brutish’ cavemen, and the term has entered the English dictionary as also meaning ‘an uncivilised or uncouth man’. Indeed, one online dictionary gives their definition of Neanderthal as meaning ‘crude, boorish, or slow-witted person’ and Neanderthaloid as ‘ill-mannered and coarse and contemptible in behaviour or appearance; stupid, oafish’ .

This view stems from the academic, religious and public climate that saw the first Neanderthal discovery in 1856, three years before Darwin published his ‘Origins of the Species’, and which cultivated the image of the Neanderthal as a deformed sub-human. Marcelin Boule’s discovery of the ‘Old Man’ of La Chapelle-aux-Saints in 1908 seemed to confirm this brutish appearance and led to the popular stereotype we know today, despite later findings showing the Neanderthal was crippled by arthritis and disease. This century old stigmatism led to the reconstructions which we see from various publications through the 20th century, depicting Neanderthals as everything from walking monkeys with spears to hunched, shambling creatures.

Only recently have the Neanderthals image started to be reassessed, with modern reconstructions portraying more accurate anatomical and cultural features, although academia is still divided on the subject of modernity and intellect. The language used to describe this period of time also contributes in some way to how we view Neanderthals and their contemporaries. Words such as ‘archaic’, ‘modern’, ‘pre-modern’ and ‘proto-human’ make us perceive Neanderthals as being somehow ‘sub-human’, unable to display the type of ‘modern’ behaviour which we associate with abstract thought, symbol use and manipulation. There is a note of surprise in the tone of articles when ideas such as burial, health care or symbolic thought are displayed by a Neanderthal site or find, as if this is somehow astonishing behaviour for hominids not of the ‘human’ sort. Headlines such as “Neanderthal hunters rivalled human skills” , “New Evidence of Neanderthal Violence”  and “Grisly finds confirms Neanderthal cannibalism”  exemplify the continuation of our judgemental view of Neanderthals.

Even in today’s climate of modern academic debate and reasoning, it is hard for theories of Neanderthal behaviour and culture more typically associated with the early-modern human contemporaries, to be taken seriously. Most are vociferously debated and on the whole rejected, whereas similar evidence from early-modern human sites are believed with little of the same dispute.

However, as more evidence comes to light, it is becoming harder to delineate between the behaviour of the Neanderthals and their contemporaries, and recent work is steadily demolishing the idea of the sub-human Mousterian man. These previous stereotypes however must be borne in mind when reviewing the evidence for and against Neanderthal culture and identical methods of examination and reasoning of the data must be applied to the Neanderthal evidence as for the early-modern humans.

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