Frederick L. Coolidge, Ph.D. and Thomas Wynn, Ph.D.

How to Think Like a Neandertal

What Did Neandertals Dream About?

Did Neandertals have creative dreams and what may have happened to those dreams?

Posted Oct 21, 2013

As we noted in a previous blog, all primates (human and nonhuman) have at least these two characteristics of sleep: deep, heavy slow-wave sleep, which most often occurs at the beginning of a sleep period and REM sleep, which usually occurs towards the end of a sleep period. We also noted that the percentage of REM sleep tends to diminish phylogenetically as one goes back in time. Thus, modern humans average about 25% of their total sleep in REM. Chimpanzees, who share our most recent common ancestor 6-8 million years ago, have about 20% REM sleep. Monkeys, about 23 million years genetically distant, get about 5% to 15% REM. One implication of these percentages is that Neandertals must have had both slow-wave sleep and REM sleep. However, we also have hinted that their brains, although larger, were shaped differently. It would be almost pure speculation to state whether their larger, differently shaped brains exhibited more REM sleep, less REM sleep, or about the same as modern Homo sapiens.

We have also recently noted that there is archeological evidence suggesting that Neandertals may not have been as creative or innovative as the Homo sapiens who replaced them in Europe beginning about 40,000 years ago, Others believe that Neandertals were as creative as Homo sapiens, but that we just have just not yet found evidence. They often argue that ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.’ We feel that continued absence of evidence – and archaeologists have been excavating Neandertal sites for well over one hundred years now – suggests that there were real differences in their thinking and creativity when compared Homo sapiens.

Take the Hohlenstein-Stadel figurine (attributed to Homo sapiens in southwest Germany about 35,000 years ago). This 11 inch tall, ivory statue (also called the Löwenmensch or Lion Man) appears to portray the female head of a lion on top of a standing human body. A Scottish-like sporran or codpiece seems to cover the groin of this theriantrope (half-beast, half-human) so the sex of the human body is not certain. An enigmatic smile adds to the mystic. This piece of figurative art is the first of its kind in the archaeological record. Some have suggested that it may have represented supernatural beliefs and others (us) have argued that it required the resources of modern thinking to imagine and produce. Additional archaeological evidence for creativity comes from magnificent cave paintings like those at Chauvet Cave in France that about 35,000 years ago, and a ritualized burial at Sungir, Russia, at around the same time, where two children, a boy and girl, were buried with over 10,000 polished beads, ornamental ivory disks, and ivory spears tapered to the length of their bodies. To date, there have been no human-like or therianthropic figurines, no cave paintings, and no ritualized burials associated with Neandertals (we will discuss the evidence for supposed Neandertal burials in a later posting). Again, many anthropologists declare that there were no creativity differences between Neandertals and Homo sapiens, and that the apparent difference is illusory, reflecting only the vagaries of preservation.

Also in our last blog, we noted that sometimes dreams are creative and give us innovative solutions to problems that might not come to us when we are awake. Recent history is replete with examples of creative ideas and inventions that are claimed to have come from dreams. The German chemist Kekulé in 1865 who claimed that the chemical structure of benzene came to him in a dream or reverie about a snake chasing its tail. The Russian chemist Mendeleev claimed dreams aided his description and qualities of the periodic table. The Indian mathematician Ramanujan claimed that a Hindu goddess provided him with many of his mathematical theorems. Interestingly, one study of contemporary mathematicians reported that about 50% claimed that answers to mathematical problems came to them while dreaming. Upon learning the latter, we asked an award winning mathematics professor on our campus about this phenomenon, he said, “No. But, I dream of the most wonderful problems.” And we have already noted the obvious in a previous blog: who can possibly claim that all thinking, creativity, and innovation ceases when we sleep or that activity is constrained to waking consciousness?

So if we are correct that the archaeological record supports a real qualitative difference in creativity levels between Neandertals and Homo sapiens, and if recent written history has a plethora of examples of scientific, artistic, musical ideas and innovations (and even religious ones) associated with dreaming, then could this apparent lack of creativity in Neandertals have anything to do with their REM sleep?

Let’s begin with a supposition: Let us assume that Neandertals had the same amount of REM sleep as Homo sapiens and that dreaming plays some role in creativity. Then why would there be a paucity of evidence for creativity in Neandertals? One possibility is that their daily lives may have been more stressful and difficult. There’s much evidence that starvation was common among Neandertals, perhaps because of their concentration on a meaty diet, particularly large game animals. Dreams reported by modern hunter-gatherers show greater rates of aggressive themes in dreams. In addition, the few dreams studies conducted with starving people reveal (not surprisingly) more food and eating themes. Thus, Neandertals may have been equally capable of creative dreams but those themes lost out to the realities of waking life: a tough existence and starvation. A second possibility is that Neandertals did have as many creative dreams as Homo sapiens, but they could not communicate and transmit these ideas to their brethren. There are some anthropologists, for example, who think Neandertals may have been prelinguistic (lack of formal language and grammar), and others (like us) who believe Neandertals had language but that it was more limited in its ability to communicate abstract information, and still others who see no reason for drawing a linguistic distinction.

But finally, let us answer our teaser: what did Neandertals dream about? In all likelihood, they still dreamt of the same common themes we dream about and that is being chased, falling, flying, being unable to move, being unprepared, improperly clothed or naked, being lost, losing a tooth (another future blog on that topic) or having sex.

We will return to the issue of creativity in later posts, probably several times. There is a fascinating literature about it in psychology, a literature that anthropologists and archaeologists have rarely accessed, but which may help us think about our Neandertal problem.


Neandertal stone knapping

Neandertal stone knapping