Neandertal Stone Circles – Bruniquel Cave / John Hawks Weblog

Full post discusses the treatment of Neandertal culture in archaeology:


Across the entire timespan of existence of Neandertals and the branch that gave rise to them, probably fewer than 50,000 of them existed at any time. I would not be much surprised if the true number was much smaller. If the average lifespan of a Neandertal was 20 years, maintaining a population of 50,000 individuals would require around 7 births per day. For the more than half million years this population and its ancestors existed, back past Sima de los Huesos to their common ancestors with Denisovans and African peoples, we can say there were as many as 1.3 billion Neandertals.

Weigh that against how little we know of them, how few pieces of their cultures they left for us. We do not know what the cultural production of an average Neandertal could have been, this is why the denominator is unknown. But it is evident that the fraction represented by the archaeological record is tiny.

The accompanying opinion essay by Marie Soressi is well worth reading, in it she reminds archaeologists of the limits of preservation:

These structures are among the best-preserved constructions known for the whole of the Pleistocene epoch, probably because they were sealed by calcite very soon after they were erected. When the best evidence is found in the best-preserved context, it serves as a reminder for archaeologists of how much we depend on preservation. The fact that some of the art of the period is also often found deep inside caves has been alternatively interpreted as a testimony of the preservation provided by the cave environment3 or as a result of spiritual preoccupations — the underground being a special place4. Perhaps we need to further consider the idea that the fuzziness of the Neanderthal record is due to a lack of preservation.

One might argue that the fact that we only find a tiny number of uniquely informative Neandertal-associated artifact is itself information. Surely, if the Neandertals had been more culturally productive, more modern, they would have left more of a record? Soressi’s essay addresses that argument to some extent, but I want to examine a slightly different point of view. The fact is, it’s hardly just Neandertals. We know very little about the ancient cultures of modern humans.


Which doesn’t prevent archaeologists from indulging in rampant “novel-writing” activities, based on zero evidence!


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