Valerius Geist
April 19th, 2000

A detailed review of the current ideas about the life and demise of Neanderthal man in Der Spiegel (pp. 240-255 in 12/20th March 2000), as well as a recent production about Neanderthal man on the Discovery Channel, illustrate an example of how "wheels" are reinvented in Science. It gives cause to reflect on interdisciplinary research in anthropology as well as upon accepted ways of advancing ideas. I was pleased as the current paradigm is close - and approaching - my own about Neanderthal man as published over 20 years ago in Geist, V. 1978 Life Strategies, Human Evolution, Environmental Design. Springer-Verlag, New York, and in popular form in 1981 as Neanderthal the Hunter, Natural History 90(1), 26-36. The latter article was republished four times, but faded from memory in subsequent controversies about Neanderthal's nature. The current paradigm arising is in some regards a copy of my earlier synthesis, but also departs into dubious directions. Therefore, while the "new wheel" has some excellent spokes, some of its spokes are rotten and the "old wheel" remains superior. What anthropologists are painfully oblivious of it the behaviour of large mammals as well as the ecology of Ice Ages and its consequences. (An aside, but in a similar vain, after watching the truly spectacular series Walking with Dinosaurs on Discovery Channel I would give it the following grades, visual effects A+, behaviour C, Ecology D-. The dinosaur boys have a pedestrian understanding of social behaviour, anti-predator strategy and above all - large herbivore ecology).

Salient features of Neanderthal's anatomy were powerfully muscled, enlarged hands whose fingers could be spread farther apart than ours, the fingers must have been quite fleshy, particular the terminal digits. The shoulder girdle was large and "simian", reminiscent of a brachiator. The limb bones were exceptionally massive, curved and the joints huge - even in small children. The joints thus spoke of quick acceleration and deceleration. The insertions of muscles and the morphology of the bones indicated exceptional power. We know from sport physiology that muscular power and precision go hand in hand. If so, we expect a very large cerebellum in Neanderthal's brain, and the rearward extension of the skull, the bun-like occiput, is thus quite in line with expectation. Brachiation? Not in the treeless periglacial loess steppe! I visited the Calgary stampede and was watching the rodeo events while mulling over Richard Klein's book (1973) and papers on Mousterian and Upper Palaeolithic archeology. The pattern of large mammal killed were different between these periods. Our Upper Palaeolithic ancestors killed Bos primigenius with high frequency, Neanderthal did not. He focussed on larger prey. Then I noticed that Neanderthal's prey were predominantly "hairy" creatures - wooly mammoth, wooly rhinos, steppe wisent, horses - species whose hair was long and tough enough to grab and hang onto. At that moment wild bull riding was in progress, with the rodeo cowboys hanging on for dear life to a rope wound tight about the bull's midriff as the bull went through spectacular jumps and contortions - and the cowboys eventually flew off, frequently crash-landing, while the rodeo clowns went through extraordinary performances distracting and teasing the bull. One even jumped over the attacking bull's head. The rodeo bull, a down-sized version of its wild Pleistocene ancestor Bos primigenius, with a coat of short, sleek hair, could only be "held onto" by means of the cinch-rope - and not otherwise. And suddenly it all fell into place. I saw how both - Neanderthal and Cro-magnon - hunted.

One Neanderthal hunter, using the universal Achilles heel of mega-herbivores (confronting predators) attracted the prey's attention, while the second hunter, with great speed and agility grasped its hairy body strategically and hung on. The prey's attention would now be directed at the clinging man and it would go into rodeo-like jumps and contortions trying to rid itself of the attachment. With the prey totally distracted by the hunter clinging to its side, hunter number one could dodge in and kill the prey. Neanderthal had discovered and made use of one of the two principle means of avoiding harm in combat: get in so close to the opponent, that the latter cannot use its weapons. The second principle means of avoiding injury, is to stay away so far, that the weapons and attacks of the opponent cannot reach you - that's what Cro Magnon took advantage of. Of that later.

The hunter, clinging to the bucking prey, potentially could do more than distract it. If you grab hold of a horse and bite hard into its ears, you paralyse it! You bring it to a halt. Very convenient, for how does one kill a spinning, bucking beast? Certainly NOT with a throwing spear! First, you would need to hit precisely a moving target. Secondly, you will hit bone in about 50% of the cases and chatter the flint or obsidian spear-point - not killing the prey, only stimulating it to greater exertions, endangering greatly both hunters. Thirdly, if by good fortune the spear cuts through between two ribs and sails on into the lungs and hear of the prey, it may keep on going and exit between two ribs skewering the friend and buddy holding onto the beast on the off-side. Fourthly, even if the throwing spear hits a vital organs and does not skewer hunter number two holding onto the prey, the killing power of the thrown spear is much too low to kill or diable the prey quickly, and allow hunter number two to terminate his dangerous rodeo-ride quickly.

In short, one has to know how to kill a large mammal quickly and safely - a task that requires a bit of study even if you are armed today with a modern rifle of adequate design! Yet killing large mammals quickly and in safety was most certainly a thoroughly studied subject of Neanderthal and Cro Magnon alike. The latter crafted - exquisite - throwing spear points, Neanderthal did not. As we shall see he did not have to. The trowing spear can function only within very narrow tolerances. It needs a very sharp point and edges so as to cut through the very tough skin of a large mammal. It needs to be narrow-bladed so as to facilitate penetration, as its only power to penetrate is the kinetic energy of its mass and velocity. Experience with cavalry lances - and there is or was plenty of that - shows its low killing power. The wound channel is too small in diameter. To kill quickly, the blade needs to be three to four times as wide - nicely illustrated by traditional European boar and bear spears. These were the mainstay of European hunters for millennia. Mousterian tool kits have enough - crude - spear points of the right size, but they are thick and very crudely chipped - and a little reflection will show that that's exactly what we are looking for! To kill a distracted rhino, mammoth, bison or horse, Neanderthal hunter No. 1 needed a broad-bladed, hand- held spear that would not stick in bone or be shattered by bone, but upon hitting bone would glide around the bone and could be thrust deep into the vitals. Moreover, granted Neanderthal's huge muscular power and power of acceleration, a wide, relatively thick, crudely flaked spear point could be thrust through thick hides and deflected past thick bones. Neanderthal had no need for an "artistically" crafted spear blade (as Cro Magnon did!). And the apparent "crudeness" of the tools has nothing to do with dexterity or lack of craftsmanship. Quite the contrary. A "crude", thick spear point, which could hit a bone and not shatter, that could even loose a chunk or chip as it hit bone and would still be serviceable, would still slide past the bone into the prey's interior, was precisely what was needed. "Crudeness" was thus a design feature, a deliberate choice based on bitter experience, not due to an absence of skill. Neanderthal was quite capable of very fine, dainty work in bone and stone.

Another weapon used by Neanderthal was a hand ax capped with mastic - a mixture of clay and tree-resins. Great for cutting through soft tissue when used with power.

Therefore, equipped by natural selection with great power, agility and speed over the short range, as well as with - apparently - simple hand spears and axes, TWO Neanderthal hunters could bring down a very large, hairy prey. Cro Magnon could not do this. Cro Magnon perfected his primary hunting technique based on the second defensive option - staying at a distance from prey. Here throwing spears with fine cutting blades is essential. Since on average half the spears thrown into large prey will shatter on bone, one needs a group of hunters, probably 5-7 individuals. Here too the large prey's Achilles heel is taken advantage of, but the prey is immobilised giving a good standing target by splitting its attention between hunters deliberately vying for its attention. Once the spears have found their mark (most likely the liver of the beast, immobilizing it still further and least likely to shatter spear points) it is a matter of playing "toreador-like" with the prey till it falls from excessive haemorrhage. This hunting strategy calls for great agility, accuracy in throwing and what we would call overall athletic ability. This hunting strategy does not differentiate between long-haired and short-haired beasts, and lends itself best to the hunting of small ungulates. As it turns out, Cro Magnon primary prey (90%+) were reindeer. Hunting larger beasts with that method was so dangerous that young men immortalised their fancies with paintings deep in caves. The painters were primarily young men (based on hand and foot prints) who bragged about their prowess (See Geist 1978 Life Strategies..)and painted their fascinations with large, dangerous mammals. See Dale Guthrie's book on that subject - when it comes out.

Let me skip over some other linked attributes of Neanderthal's morphology and culture, such as his large, taurodont cheek teeth, peculiar jaw and biting teeth structure and wear, the odd hearths and his apparently low population density. These are not directly relevant to Neanderthal's demise, a big theoretical concern of the currently arising paradigm. It holds, in brief, that Cro-Magnon wiped out Neanderthal. Just so!

The above reconstruction indicates that Neanderthal was a very different human being, physically enormously strong and able, possibly with a very different psychology from ours as evidenced by the difficulties we have in experimental archeology reconstructing his tools and their wear patterns. Now recent research reveals that Neanderthal man was not only subject to a high rate of injury during life, but that the pattern of his injuries resembles that of rodeo riders!

As a fighter a mature, health Neanderthal must have been virtually invincible. We could not stand up to one, and I doubt that even a Cassius Clay could. It does not surprise, therefore, at the beginning of the last major glaciation, the Würm Glaciation, Neanderthal's tools replace "pre-Aurignacian" tools in the Mediterranean basin. He displaces us! Yet he does not eliminate us! Why not? Where did we find refuge from Neanderthal man?

Here we have to step back a little: the preceding glaciation, the Riss Glaciation beginning about 225 000 years ago, was exceptionally severe. That means, it severely desiccated equatorial regions. It terminated Homo erectus - who was not adapted to deserts. Avery few humans survive to form the new species, which, in contrast to H. erectus now have two new specialities: successfully living off mega-herbivores as a super predator (Neanderthal) and - successfully living in deserts. We are the desert people. I argued that at length in my 1978 Life Strategies book. All sort of indications point to desert adaptations in European Upper Palaeolithic people. Therefore, the reason Neanderthal displaced us in the Mediterranean basin, but did not wipe us out, is because pre-Cro-Magnon withdrew into desert, where Neanderthal could not make a living. Deserts were our refuge habitat as we could not compete with Neanderthal. In the first phase of the Würm Glaciation, we are thus bottled up in North Africa. Note: at the very height of that Glaciation, 60, 000 y BP, when dessication is maximal and deserts invade southern Mediterranean shores, Cro-magnids slip past Neanderthal in the south-eastern Levant and spread to southern Asia and Australia, but - of course - not into Europe. That's Neanderthal's stronghold. As long as glacial conditions hold he is invincible, because this system of close-confrontation hunting adequately supplies his needs and Neanderthal men grow into physical powerhouses.

About 40, 000 y BP a crisis hits: climates become warmer as a long (5,000 years) interstadial develops (now well supported by analyses of Greenland ice cores). An interstadial is a warm pause within a major glaciation. Warming-up, however, is associated with great problems for humans (again, see my Life Strategies book for details). Therefore, expect evidence for change. And change comes. Something happens to Cro-Magnon as the culture of the Upper Palaeolithic jumps into being. It is almost certainly a response to crisis, just as we see such during the last de-glaciation. Neandertal man declines in size and numbers and disappears over the next 5,000, possibly 7,000 years. The last skeletons appear to indicate a shrinkage in body size. That would not surprise as we find a severe shrinkage in body size in Cro-magnids during the last de-glaciation in Europe. We also find then great innovations in tools and new ways to survive. We, therefore, also expect some innovations by Neanderthal and Cro- Magnon in the interstadial in 40,000-35,000 yBP. And that, according to Der Spiegel is indeed found, but these innovations are attributed currently to the meeting of the enemies, Neanderthal and Cro Magnon, claiming that they "sparked off one another". Funny, that no such "sparking off one another" happened when the two met at the beginning of the Würm glaciation, or again about 60,000 y BP when Cro-magnids slipped past Neanderthal to colonize Asia and Australia. In short, we expect innovation in Neanderthal's and Cro-Magnon tool kits beginning about 40,000 y BP due to hardships imposed by the ecological changes that followed from the interstadial

What is happening?

The large game herds of the cold, but productive glacial loess steppes decline severely, but also change distribution. Unproductive tundra and scrub-taiga (coniferous forest) begins to spread, lowering productivity of the land - the very thing Neanderthal depends upon. Of that later. Winter concentration of mega-herbivores now shrink to the glacial margins - and so does Neanderthal distribution. The reason for this shrinkage is that glacial margins, with their perpetual out-flow of cold air protect the adjacent winter ranges from icing. In other words, the snow-eating chinook winds are not well enough developed to clear snow, but only promote icing and the starvation of ungulates dependent on the forages of the loess steppe. We have thus fewer mammoth, wooly rhinos, steppe wisent and horses, but possibly more migratory reindeer - but a distance from glaciers.

Neanderthal ecology is based on killing very large creatures, storing large chunks of the carcass under ice, snow, possibly water and under sod and rocks, and thawing out or even cooking large joints in large fires and discarding the bones to the fire. That would create the large hearths filled with bone-ash typical of Neanderthal man. During the interstadial there are thus fewer places left to do such hunting. Cro Magnon operates differently. He has perfected meat drying. He used a lunar calendar to anticipate reindeer movements - as such can be predicted accurately only by the use of precise chronologic time. He kills in excess and stores the excess. Cro Magnon is primarily a reindeer eater, and the interstadial with its spread of scrub tundra and scrub forests favours reindeer over the grazers from the mammoth steppe. Moreover, Cro-Magnon has discovered how to use ontogeny to generate his phenotype as a tool. The result: superlative physical development and a brain-size significantly larger than ours. However, granted an advantaged Cro-Magnon and a disadvantaged Neanderthal man, the displacement of the latter by the former takes thousands upon thousands of years in the small geographic space of Europe. Neanderthal shrinks progressively into mountains and Cro-Magnon advances very slowly. Even when disadvantaged, Neanderthal man was a most capable opponent and Cro- magnids could not easily displace him. With the return of cold weather, however, Neanderthal fails to respond. He goes extinct possibly as late as 27,000 y BP.

There could not have been a grand war with Cro-Magnon rising triumphantly, as currently argued. If so, we would have had battle scenes in cave paintings. However, there is nothing of that kind. The Cro Magnon painters are bragging about their encounters with dangerous large mammals only. Direct contact of Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon occupation layers are very scarce. The two human forms rarely met. Cro-magnon was about five times as abundant in density as Neanderthal (judging from the number of hearths in Würm I versus Würm II). He was, clearly, a more efficient hunter than Neanderthal. Therefore, areas used by Cro-magnids were very likely depleted of mega-herbivores - that Cro-magnids were so fascinated by for status, but which Neanderthal so depended on for food! Giant deer, for instance, a fairly common prey of Neanderthal, decline from about 40,000 -30,000 y BP onward and went extinct about 10,000 BP. That's the work of Cro-Magnon. Areas used by Cro-magnids were most likely starvation sites for Neanderthal man. I would, therefore, not expect Neanderthal to reclaim such from Cro-magnids. The extinction of Neanderthal man was thus probably less dramatic than the current, emerging paradigm suggests. A lot of whimpers, very few bangs and no "sparking off on one another".

Hybridization? Highly unlikely between Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon. It would have been an utter disaster for Neanderthal and probably for Cro-Magnon as well. The morphological features of Neanderthal appear early in childhood. These are, consequently, genetic features required for a very hard, difficult and unforgiving way of hunting. The high rate of injury underscores it. A hunter had to be very good just to live! A hybrid child would not be able genetically to reach the morphological development required for successful and safe close-quarter hunting. For Neanderthal people it would have been a waste of resources and an impairment of their future to raise such a child. From the Cro-Magnon perspective a hybrid trying to practice distant-confrontation hunting might have been far too bold, and possibly awkward, fatal characteristics either way. The differences in morphology were there for a good reason and diluting such with hybridization would have been very disadvantageous. I wrote, therefore, over 20 years ago that Neanderthal went extinct without hybridization or transformation into Cro-Magnon. Recent studies of Neanderthal DNA confirmed that conclusion. We are very different. Neanderthal and we had long separated in the distant Homo erectus past. Our respective differences in structure were long-standing adaptations honed closely by natural selection - and were not commensurable. The differences in mtDNA between Neanderthal and ourselves confirms that there was no hybridization or transformation by Neanderthal into modern man.

And finally: Neanderthal was among hominids what the saber-toothed tiger Smildon was among cats - close-quarter hunters preying on mega-herbivores, both highly subject to injury, both healing out lots and lots of bone breakages. Therefore, both species, man and cat, had social systems supportive of injured members. For all of their brute strength, Neanderthal people were not brutes. They must have been very caring of one another and the archeological record supports this view. Theirs was a very hard life and they were not likely to go looking for trouble - and neither were Cro-magnid people. The latter maximised individual development at the expense of population size. Consequently, every individual was precious, far too precious to chance losing in a fight. There is virtually no evidence for homicide, in stark contrast to the subsequent Mesolithic period, that dumped Upper Palaeolithic people into a horrendous black age. Had Neanderthal been on the mind of people in the Upper Palaeolithic, then they would have recorded it in their cave paintings.

The foregoing is based on "interdisciplinarity", bringing into play principles form a range of distinct scientific disciplines. The basis for the current Neanderthal paradigm was known for over three or more decades. The current paradigm is still flawed as it lacks any understanding of Ice Age ecology, or appreciates the ramification of the life strategies of large mammals. Northern mammals in particular. It also lacks and understanding of hunting and weaponry. Researchers were constructing thrusting spears then throwing such! Are we genetically biassed towards throwing things at game? Like pointing dogs, biassed to point when sniffing game, rather than like coyotes who waste no time and quickly jump to the kill?

Valerius Geist <>




Maintained by Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California Los Angeles