You may think you know someone who thinks like a Neanderthal. You may even think you know someone who is a Neanderthal, or at least part one. Chances are you’re right about both. Webster’s definition of Neanderthal is unflattering: “suggesting a caveman in appearance or behavior.” (The definition of caveman: “One who acts in a rough primitive manner, especially toward women.”)
But Thomas Wynn (an anthropologist) and Frederick L. Coolidge (a psychologist), both at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, offer a very different picture in How to Think Like a Neandertal, their engaging reconstruction of Neanderthal life. Using their professional expertise, they go beyond the physical evidence to speculate not just about how Neanderthals lived but also about what they thought. It is, by necessity, pure hypothesis: Neanderthals lived (in Europe) between 200,000 and 30,000 years ago and left no clues in the form of a written record or even any kind of representative art. (As for the spelling, Neanderthal or tal, the authors write, “Take your pick; the terms are pronounced identically.”)
Neanderthals, they posit, were empathetic; possessed at least some language; were companionable; strongly attached to family; able but not skillful at planning ahead; and demonstrated impressive mechanical skills.
On the negative side, they were xenophobic, occupying a small territory from which they rarely strayed. They were not innovative. They may also occasionally have eaten one another, probably when they were hungry enough. Some humans have been known to do the same.
As evidence of Neanderthal mechanical savvy, the authors cite the creation of the spearhead. The early Neanderthals simply chipped away at a rock with a harder rock to create a sharp edge, copying something that usefully appeared in nature. This chipping technique, known as knapping, is simple. “Chimpanzees and orangutans (and college students) have been taught to do it,” the authors write. But the Neanderthals refined the art of knapping to create the Levallois spear head, an intricately faceted point that could effectively maim or kill an animal as large as a mammoth.
By Thomas Wynn and Frederick L. Coolidge
Oxford University Press
After figuring out the spear point, they had to determine a method for attaching it to the wooden shaft. “There were unforgiving laws of physics to overcome,” the authors write. Try attaching a rock to a stick, securely enough that it won’t dislodge when you stab a mammoth. Tricky. The Neanderthal solution, involving bitumen and perhaps the intricate lashing together of the two pieces (the lashings do not survive), represents the high point of known Neanderthal innovation. “However they did it, Neandertals solved an important engineering problem, thereby enhancing the effectiveness of their primary weapon,” the authors write.
They were loathe to break from routine, however. Even after they were exposed to the far more effective spears of contemporary Homo sapiens 40,000 to 30,000 years ago, they failed to incorporate that more sophisticated technology into their own. This contributed to their eventual demise.
As for the Neanderthal life of the mind, the evidence is sketchy. The archaeological record provides no symbolic creations comparable to those made by human contemporaries. Did they believe in God? An afterlife? The first Neanderthals were found in graves, according to their discoverers, which gave rise to the belief that Neanderthals shared an emotional and religious similarity to humans.