A new paper suggests that Neanderthals, unlike humans, never figured out how to make coats to stay warm, and that the absence of this technological innovation contributed to their eventual demise. It’s an intriguing theory, but there’s more to the story of Neanderthal extinction than the absence of parkas.
Depiction of a Neanderthal woman. (Photo: Joe McNally/National Geographic)
Writing in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, researchers from Simon Fraser University in Canada have uncovered evidence showing that Neanderthals may have died out because they were unable to sufficiently warm themselves using animal fur. Rather than covering themselves in cosy parka-like clothing, Neanderthals were not able to move beyond primitive capes, which according to the authors of the new study may have had something to do with their ultimate undoing. They either lacked the intelligence to make clothing from animal fur, say the researchers, or they let cultural traditions stand in their way.
To get to this theory, study lead author Mark Collard and his colleagues studied animal bones found around ancient campsites. At the Neanderthal sites, they noticed a stark absence of animal remains associated with fur coats, namely foxes, rabbits, minks and even wolverines. By contrast, the researchers found multiple traces of these animals around 56 early human campfires. Conceivably, all of these animals could have been skinned to provide materials for a fur coat or parka. What’s more, the researchers found other evidence suggestive of clothing at these sites, including bone needles for sewing and other tools used to scrape pelts.
Lack of warm clothing, say the researchers, would have dissuaded Neanderthals from foraging further north, and limited the amount of time they could hunt during the warmest part of the day. The researchers admit there’s more to the story about Neanderthal extinction, but the ability to keep warm could have given early humans a competitive edge.
On the face of it, this theory seems to have some merit; a “killer app” like warm coats could be the kind of evolutionary technological innovation that separates the boys from the men (pardon the analogy). At the same time, however, there’s something very unsatisfying about this theory. The Neanderthals, as we’re steadily learning, were survivors, having weathered Ice Age conditions for thousands of years. Yes, it’s possible that Neanderthals were never able to create coats — or they refused to wear them for cultural reasons (which seems ludicrous given the obvious benefits) — but this unlikely contributed to their eventual extinction.
Neanderthals first appeared in Europe well over 150,000 years ago, and they managed to survive 100,000 years of Ice Age conditions, an era known as the Last Glacial Period. That’s a long stretch of time by any measure, and a lack of coats didn’t seem to bother the Neanderthals. What’s more, their bodies were well suited for survival in cold climates. They had barrel chests and stocky limbs, which allowed them to store body heat more efficiently than early humans. That said, they did require more energy to fuel their husky bodies.
Human skull (left) compared to Neanderthal skull (right). (Image: Matt Celesky)
As to the question of Neanderthal intelligence, it was likely en par to that of Cro-Magnon, the first early modern humans to settle Europe. We know that Neanderthals buried their dead, made cave paintings, created jewellery and decorated themselves with feathers. In fact, early humans may have even ripped off neanderthal technology, including the lissoir, a specialised bone used to work animal hides to make them softer, tougher, shinier and more resistant to water. Neanderthals may have even used these tools to fashion the kind of clothing that the Simon Fraser researchers claim they never had.
Indeed, it’s possible that Neanderthals crafted clothing from foxes and wolverines, but discarded the remains in such a way that archaeologists are now unable to recover them; absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, as the saying goes.
The reasons for Neanderthal extinction may have nothing to do with being cold, and in fact, some research suggests the exact opposite. After having adapted to Ice Age conditions for millennia, Neanderthals may have found it difficult to cope with dramatic changes in climate, and the ensuing changes to their prey and habitat.
Neanderthals, as a discrete species, disappeared from the fossil record sometime between 41,000 and 39,000 years ago. Home sapiens arrived in Europe between 45,000 and 43,000 years ago, but Neanderthals may have already been on the decline by the time humans arrived, the remainder of them being absorbed through interbreeding. Humans and Neanderthals shared Europe for several thousand years, so it would be a surprise if Neanderthals didn’t adopt some Cro-Magnon technology (a process known as cultural exchange). It’s also worth noting that the Neanderthals didn’t so much “die out” as they were absorbed into the human gene pool.
The reasons for Neanderthal extinction, if that’s what it can be called, are complex and varied. Simplistic solutions, while tempting, rarely provide the whole story.