‘Houses’ of Neanderthals were not so different in terms of design from those of our ancestors

When you think of a Neanderthal settlement, you probably picture a central campfire with objects randomly strewn around it. Scientists have now discovered that that image probably has nothing to do with reality.

For years, scientists agreed: the ability to structure a space is reserved exclusively for the Homo sapien. A new study now questions that belief. For the research, the scientists went to the area near Riparo Bombrini; an ancient shelter in the Italian rocks. Remains of people who lived there many centuries ago can be found in the ground. What makes Riparo Bombrini even more special is that, in the deeper layers, remains of Neanderthals can also be found. Scientist Amélie Vallerand contributed to the research. She tells Scientias.nl: “this research shows that Neanderthals organized their living spaces in a way that is similar to that of modern humans. We discovered several areas that were clearly used for different activities. We found a place where animals were probably slaughtered, a place where tools were made and a place where people rested. This discovery suggests that Neanderthals were much more cognitively complex than previously thought.” The research has been published in the journal Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory.

Soil investigation
For the research, the scientists looked at artifacts that can be found in the different soil layers of Riparo Bombrini. Although the precise time periods of these layers have yet to be determined, scientists have discovered through carbon dating of artifacts that the oldest layer must be between 45,000 to 42,000 years old. For the study, the scientists classified any remains and objects found per layer into five categories: stones (tools), bones, shells, ocher and charcoal. Ultimately, they depicted these objects as dots on a map of Riparo Bombrini. Afterwards, an analysis was carried out to see whether any clusters could be found of different materials.

This analysis quickly showed that both humans and Neanderthals did not just leave their things lying around, but that they often kept the same types of materials together. In this regard, the scientists point out an important difference between the clusters of humans and those of Neanderthals. For example, the Neanderthal clusters contained fewer objects and there were also fewer clusters in total. Vallerand explains: “We think Neanderthals probably lived in smaller groups than was common among humans. We also think that Neanderthals probably had different subsistence strategies.” The research shows that Neanderthals generally moved around much more, while people at the time were more interested in creating a place to live.

Smart ancestor
The results of the study are significant because they show that the ability to structure a space was not only reserved for modern humans. Instead, the research shows that Neanderthals also had this. Vallerand said: “This research changes the way we look at Neanderthals by highlighting their ability to structure space. Not only that; this research also shows that they were able to designate places for specific activities. This suggests that Neanderthals had cognitive and social capabilities previously reserved for modern humans.”

However, the research also leads to new research questions. Vallerand explains that having a larger brain was likely a major reason why both humans and Neanderthals ultimately possessed the ability to structure space. However, it is still unknown which factors played a role in making this development possible. Vallerand hopes to find an answer to this during a subsequent study.