The old view (left) and the new.
The spears were of different sizes, one perhaps to function as a long lance for finishing off wounded prey, while others had been weighted towards the tips to fly like javelins. There was nothing crude about them: they represented a precision-engineered hunting kit. They were more than 300,000 years old. The intelligence of Neanderthals – and their consequent use of culture and social organisation in survival strategies – is evident in other ways. The long, curved, steep edges of Quina tools, for example, would have been perfect for working hides. No less than 70 Neanderthal sites have now yielded evidence for the use of pigments – reds, yellows, blacks – sometimes involving the transport of minerals from as far away as 50 miles. What of the dead, whose treatment may provide the sharpest clues as to Neanderthal belief? Were Neanderthals grave-diggers? Did they revere their dead? Did they have any notion of an afterlife, of ancestor spirits moving among them? As yet we cannot be sure, but the tangled evidence around the ‘Old Man’ excavated at La Chapelle-aux-Saints in 1908 may imply deliberate burial. The most complete Neanderthal skeleton ever found, the remains were notably less damaged and weathered than the many animal bones found in the same cave. Recent re-excavation has confirmed the presence of a deep-cut pit, which could have been natural, but may have been human-made. We have come a long way. When the first Neanderthal remains were uncovered, antiquarians were still struggling to overturn the creationist myths of the Christian Church. Long after this, fossil hominins floated in time, there being no scientific techniques to date either the bones themselves or the geological strata in which they were found. Then, from the mid 20th century onwards, radiocarbon and a battery of other approaches provided hard chronologies. But it is clear from Wragg
The Past | April/May 2021