How to Think Like a Neandertal

The complex lives of pre-humans, and what it means to you

Neandertal's Diet, Hunting, and Personality

What did Neandertals eat, how did they hunt, and what were their personalities?

In a recent post, we alluded to the Neandertal diet and suggested that it was more heavily meat-based than that of modern Homo sapiens. The evidence for their diet comes from archaeological remains and also from chemical traces in Neandertal bones. One of these sites is spectacular, La Cotte de St. Brelade (off the coast of Normandy, France), where Neandertals slaughtered and butchered mammoth and rhinoceros. Neandertals appeared to have occupied this area from about 250,000 years ago to about 50,000 years ago. The site demonstrates that Neandertals were fully capable of killing and processing the largest of land mammals. It was in northwest Europe that this emphasis on hunting large mammals was most pronounced. Especially during cold, glacial, periods there were few edible plants on offer; indeed some paleoanthropologists suggest that Neandertals may have acquired some plant foods by eating the partially digested contents of the stomachs of herbivores they had killed (another plus for the paleo diet)! In other parts of the Neandertal range, a bias toward large mammals was not as pronounced, but everywhere Neandertals were, they appeared to have preferred the biggest animals available. They were also pragmatic, hunting smaller game, collecting tortoises and other ‘sessile’ creatures, and occasionally catching fish, though archaeologists have no evidence for the kinds of technology required to make fishing a primary goal.

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Neandertals also ate plants. Unfortunately, plants rarely preserve in the archaeological record, and evidence for plant consumption must often be indirect via technology or through bone chemistry, or even wear patterns on teeth. Evidence for eating plants, though rare, now extends to most regions inhabited by Neandertals. It is just very difficult to measure how important plants were in the Neandertal diet. Steven Kuhn and Mary Stiner of the University of Arizona have suggested in 2006 that low levels of plant use indicates that Neandertal social groups may not have had a division of labor by sex, and that all individuals, including children, took part in the hunt (you may request from us our published suggestion to Kuhn and Stiner that cognitive factors may account for divisions of labor and their reply).

Neandertals were effective hunters, but they used very direct, dangerous, techniques. Several sites indicate that Neandertals made use of terrain features to controls animal movement and prevent escape, or provide the hunters with an advantage of some sort. At Salzgitter-Lebenstedt in Germany, they maneuvered a herd of reindeer into a box valley where, interestingly, they selectively killed the prime adult males, apparently to have access to the antlers. At Mauran near the Pyrenees Mountains, they drove bison onto a plateau that narrowed to a set of cliff drop-offs that the bison could not negotiate. The Neandertals used this spot on several occasions, which indicates that Neandertals did not wander aimlessly around the landscape, but had detailed knowledge of the terrain of their home territories. And, of course, at La Cotte de St. Brelade, they appeared to have driven mammoth and rhinoceros over the cliff. In each of these cases, the final killing was done with thrusting spears. Steven Churchill (Duke University) has studied the wear patterns on Neandertal bones, and also the mechanical potential of their spears for penetration, and concluded than Neandertals used their spears like bayonets to kill in close. They apparently did not throw their spears.

Neandertal spears were brutal devices. They consisted of a wooden shaft on which a stone point point was hafted. Compared to the arrow points of much later Native Americans, these spear points were massive—several inches long and wide. They made for a tip-heavy spear that would not have flown well. But in the hands of a determined, strong and robust hunter, they could deliver a crippling wound. The downside was the necessity of getting within arms-reach of a mammoth, or even a reindeer for that matter. Injury was common. Most adult male Neandertal skeletons have evidence of violent injury: broken collar bones, cheek bones, skull fractures, and arm fractures. Famously, in 1995, paleoanthropologists Thomas Berger and Erik Trinkaus compared these injuries to those of rodeo cowboys (although recently Trinkaus has proposed alternative explanations). Curiously, there were few skeletons with lower body injuries. This suggests Neandertals could survive upper body injuries, almost certainly with help from family, but that leg breaks were a more serious matter. We’ll have more to say about injury in later posts; for the moment we want to address what this kind of hunting implies about Neandertal personality.

If we analyze Neandertals using C. Robert Cloninger’s (of Washington University) three personality temperaments, Novelty Seeking, Harm Avoidance, and Reward Dependence, it seems to stand out clearly that Neandertals were not ‘harm avoidant’ kind of people. Up close thrusting of spears into a rhinoceros that might weigh about 8,000 pounds takes a certain level of bravery and low levels of fear! Further, adult woolly mammoths at that time could range from 10,000 pounds to 30,000 pounds! If we analyze Neandertals on a novelty seeking dimension, the verdict also seems relatively clear. Neandertals were not innovators. Yes, they created and heated adhesives to haft stone points to spears. Yes, they created a distinctive way of stone knapping (called the Levallois technique) but throughout their more than 300,000 years of history, they were decidedly not innovators. They did not have elaborate ritual burials with grave goods like beads or spears, and they did not paint on cave walls. They appear to have been pragmatists: They did what worked for a very long time until Homo sapiens arrived, and then they went extinct. Perhaps, they stuck to their traditional staid ways of doing things when Homo sapiens came on the scene about 45,000 years ago. And it appears to have cost them dearly.

If you’d like to read more about Neandertals’ lives, please check out our 2012 book “How to Think Like a Neandertal” published by Oxford University Press. If you’d like to take a University of Colorado online course on Neandertals, go to http://www.uccs.edu/~cca.

Thomas Wynn, Ph.D. and Frederick L. Coolidge, Ph.D. are coauthors of How To Think Like a Neandertal.

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