Reasons to Believe

Did Neanderthals Make Jewelry?

I was a troublemaker in high school. And that meant I spent more than my fair share of time in Mr. Reynolds’s office—our school’s vice principal.

It wasn’t long before we developed a bit of a dance that played out each time I was summoned to his office. Mr. Reynolds would accuse me of some misdeed (for which he usually had ample evidence), and I would respond with an elaborate defense, hoping to convince him of my innocence. I quickly learned that if my excuse was to stick, every detail of my story had to hang together.

A few days ago, I was reminded of my conversations with Mr. Reynolds when I learned about recent work by a large team of collaborators from the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, and France. Based on their research efforts, these paleoanthropologists claim to have new evidence that Neanderthals produced body ornaments and, hence, possessed the capacity for symbolism and advanced cognitive abilities—just like us.1 Yet this story doesn’t hang together when considering other details about Neanderthal biology and natural history.

Take it from someone who has experience concocting stories—the claim that Neanderthals displayed symbolism doesn’t hang together.

The Grotte du Renne Cave Site

During a recent visit to the well-studied Grotte du Renne cave site in central France, these research collaborators unearthed previously unknown hominid bone fragments. These pieces of bones were morphologically nondescript. Yet these investigators found the bones to be highly informative, thanks to the application of newly developed, sophisticated techniques that allowed them to characterize ancient protein and mitochondrial DNA fragments associated with the bones. These ancient biomolecules indicated that the bones came from a Neanderthal infant.

This discovery is significant because these newly discovered bone fragments were recovered in the same layers that contain beads made from animal teeth, shells, and ivory. These “necklaces” serve as markers for symbolic capacity—a property that many people think defines modern humans. Symbolic capacity is a behavioral feature that causes a number of anthropologists to think that modern humans are behaviorally unique and exceptional.

The Grotte du Renne site contains 15 archaeological layers spanning about 12 feet in depth. Neanderthals and modern humans occupied this cave at various times between 28,000 and 45,000 years ago. The top layers—which are the most recent—contain artifacts produced by modern humans. However, the most interesting layers are VIII, IX, and X. These layers contain Neanderthal remains, with layer X harboring markers for symbolism. This layer dates to about 40,000 years in age. If this data is accepted at face value, it indicates that these hominids evolved the capacity for symbolic behavior and possessed advanced cognitive abilities just before their extinction.

Neanderthals appeared about 250,000 years ago and became extinct around 40,000+ years ago. The archaeological record indicates that for most of their existence Neanderthals behaved in a relatively unsophisticated manner compared to modern humans. (This behavior is described as the Mousterian culture.) However, based on the findings from the Grotte du Renne, some paleoanthropologists have argued that around 40,000 years ago—the time of modern humans’ arrival in Europe and right before Neanderthals’ disappearance—these hominids evolved the capacity for modern behavior and with it, symbolic thought. (Paleoanthropologists refer to this behavior as the Châtelperronian culture.)

Neanderthal Symbolism and the RTB Human Origins Model

The existence of the Châtelperronian culture means that modern humans aren’t behaviorally unique. From an evolutionary vantage point, it implies that advanced cognitive abilities evolved independently in modern humans and Neanderthals (with the antecedents for symbolism residing with the direct evolutionary ancestor of modern humans and Neanderthals).

If this insight stands, it undermines the view of humanity espoused by Scripture—namely, that human beings uniquely bear God’s image—and specifically, the RTB human origins model (detailed in the expanded and updated edition of Who Was Adam?), which regards symbolism as an aspect of the image of God.

So what did this research team discover, and what conclusions can they legitimately draw from their discoveries?

It is also worth noting that every previous claim for Neanderthal symbolism from the archaeological record has failed to withstand scientific scrutiny.

Characterization of the Grotte du Renne Bone Fragments

The research team saw the discovery of the morphologically indistinct bone fragments in layer X as an opportunity to try out new methods they recently developed, designed to recover and characterize ancient protein fragments from fossil specimens. They hope that these fragments (which are much more likely to be present in ancient bones than DNA) will provide insight into the taxonomic identity of the bone fragments and also help scientists gain insight into the biology and natural history of ancient organisms. (The study of ancient proteins is called paleoproteomics.)

Early work in paleoproteomics demonstrates that fragments of certain forms of collagen can be used to identify large-bodied genera. These researchers extracted proteins from 196 bone fragments found in layer X. Of those, 28 possessed a collagen fingerprint that identified them as coming from a hominid.

The researchers then extracted more than 70 different proteins from 3 of the 28 bone pieces. As is true for all studies involving ancient biomolecules, contamination by biomolecules from the environment and human handlers is a real concern. Because of this complication, the researchers employed an elaborate set of steps to discriminate endogenous proteins from contaminants, including the following:

  • Analyzing extraction blanks: Proteins found in both the blanks and samples must be contaminants introduced in the handling of the bones.
  • Assessing chemical alteration of proteins: As proteins age, they undergo characteristic chemical changes (such as glutamine and asparagine deamidation). Proteins that don’t show these transformations must be contaminants.
  • Searching protein databases: The researchers compared the amino acid sequences of the extracted proteins with amino acid sequences of proteins produced by nonhuman animals. Matches were taken as contaminants.

Through this process, the researchers discovered a number of collagens and non-collagen proteins that appeared to be authentic. Many of these extracted proteins are produced by cells during bone growth. Isotope analysis of collagen extracted from the hominid bones indicate that they came from an individual whose chief diet was breast milk. On this basis, the researchers concluded that the fragments were from an infant. They then found that the amino acid sequences of the extracted collagens matched collagen amino acid sequences found in both Neanderthals and Denisovans. (The researchers deduced the amino acid sequences of hominid collagens from the Neanderthal and Denisovan genomes.)

Additionally, the researchers recovered mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from one of the bone pieces. The sequence of this DNA aligns with Neanderthal mtDNA, providing confirmatory evidence that the bone fragments came from a Neanderthal.

Finally, the researchers used carbon-14 dating of extracted collagen to determine the age of the bone pieces at 37,000–39,000 years BP (before the present).

On the basis of all of these results, they concluded that the bone pieces came from a Neanderthal infant that was buried in the cave around 38,000 years ago and, more broadly, that Neanderthals produced the “necklace beads” found in layer X.

It is important to point out that this is not the first time anthropologists have arrived at this conclusion. Anthropologists have long had evidence from morphologically informative fossils for the co-occurrence of Neanderthal remains and symbolic artifacts in layer X. The novelty of this work centers around the power of paleoproteomics and ancient DNA analysis to provide key insight into the identity of fossil remains and the natural history of ancient creatures.

Did Neanderthals Display Symbolism?

Does the co-occurrence of Neanderthal remains and symbolic artifacts in layer X provide evidence for Neanderthal behavior on par with modern humans? It can, but this conclusion has to align with everything else we know about Neanderthal biology and behavior—and it doesn’t.

For example, previous work by other archaeologists at the Grotte du Renne has demonstrated that the layers in this cave have been mixed. It appears as if past occupants dug into the cave floor, turning over the cave layers. This activity means that the association between Neanderthal remains and symbolic artifacts could merely be coincidental.

In the face of this challenge, paleoanthropologists could argue that the 37,000- to 39,000-year-old date of the remains in layer X (determined in the latest study)—which matches the age of the symbolic artifacts—indicates that mixing didn’t impact layer X. Yet within the past few years, paleoanthropologists have shown that carbon-14 dating of Neanderthal remains has been plagued by carbon-14 contaminants, which renders their measured ages younger than they actually are. Improved methodology (designed to remove these contaminants) places Neanderthal extinction around 45,000+ years BP. This well-known contamination issue raises questions about the dating of the Grotte du Renne specimens, leaving open the real possibility that the Neanderthal remains are much older than 38,000 years in age. If so, it makes it likely that mixing of the cave layers did indeed occur.

Apart from the mixing of the Grotte du Renne cave layers and questions about the dating of the Neanderthal remains in layer X, the most significant reason for skepticism about claims regarding Neanderthals’ symbolic capabilities centers around what we have learned about the anatomy and physiology of this hominid’s brain.

Collectively, these observations indicate that Neanderthals were cognitively inferior to modern humans. It is hard to square these biological differences with claims that Neanderthals displayed symbolism.

It is true that Neanderthals had a brain size comparable to modern humans (maybe even slightly larger), but as I point out in Who Was Adam?, the body mass of Neanderthals was larger than modern humans. Anthropologists think that the ratio of brain size to body mass is a better indicator of intelligence than brain size alone. This ratio is called the encephalization quotient (EQ). The EQ of modern humans is greater than that of Neanderthals, indicating that these hominids were cognitively inferior to modern humans.

More importantly, the brain structures of modern human and Neanderthals differ. As discussed in Who Was Adam?, Neanderthals possessed an underdeveloped parietal lobe compared to modern humans. This part of the brain plays a role in processing information that supports language and mathematical reasoning. Also, Neanderthals devoted a greater region of their brain to vision and body control than modern humans. This would have left a smaller portion of the brain available for advanced cognition. Paleoanthropologists have determined that blood flow to Neanderthal brains was significantly lower compared to modern humans, implying that these hominids inherently lacked the capacity to support the same high level of interneuronal connectivity and synaptic activity as modern humans.

As discussed in Who Was Adam?, comparisons of modern human and Neanderthal genomes also reveal differences in genes involved in neuronal development. This result helps explain the morphological differences between modern human and Neanderthal brains.

I also point out that studies of Neanderthal dental microanatomy reveal that these creatures had a rapid, practically nonexistent adolescence. This rapid maturation leaves little time for brain development to occur after birth like it does in modern humans.

Collectively, these observations indicate that Neanderthals were cognitively inferior to modern humans. It is hard to square these biological differences with claims that Neanderthals displayed symbolism.

Finally, it is also worth noting that every previous claim for Neanderthal symbolism from the archaeological record has failed to withstand scientific scrutiny.2 It is unclear if Neanderthals buried their dead, and if they did, these burials most certainly were not ritualistic. Claims of Neanderthal music and art haven’t panned out, and there is no concrete evidence that Neanderthals had language capacity.

Take it from someone who has experience concocting stories—the claim that Neanderthals displayed symbolism doesn’t hang together. Anthropologists who claim otherwise should be sent to detention during their lunch hour.

What if the association between Neanderthal remains and symbolic artifacts proves true? There are other ways to explain their co-occurrence. Because Neanderthals and modern humans coexisted for a brief period of time in Europe, it could be that Neanderthals “appropriated” modern human artifacts and carried them to their cave sites. Given everything we know about Neanderthal brain anatomy, this is a much better story than one that has Neanderthals possessing symbolic capabilities.

Resources

Endnotes

  1. Frido Welker et al., “Palaeoproteomic Evidence Identifies Archaic Hominins Associated with the Châtelperronian at the Grotte du Renne,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 113, published electronically September 16, 2016, doi:10.1073/pnas.1605834113.
  2. For more details, see the articles listed in the resource section of this piece and the expanded and updated edition of Who Was Adam?: A Creation Model Approach to the Origin of Humanity.

Subjects: Anthropology, Neanderthals/Hominids, Scientific Studies