The Neanderthals represent the richest, most robust and most studied species in the hominin record, other than our own. And thanks to the wealth of available specimens — including their remains, tools, trash, and many more traces of their activities — scientists are piecing together a picture of their basic behavior, bit by bit.
From the unique diet of the Neanderthal to the advanced language ability and communication skill, the picture that they're producing is far from primitive. In fact, though the Neanderthals were a solitary species before they disappeared, sticking to themselves and a couple close companions, they were also accomplished and adaptable, with behavior traits that allowed them to weather some of the coldest conditions that the world has yet seen.
Read More: How Humans Survived the Ice Age
Among their most adaptive behaviors were their acquisition of food, manufacture of tools and articulation of ideas through speech and symbols.
Where Did the Neanderthals Live?
In the terrains of Africa around 400,000 years ago (or maybe as many as 800,000 years ago), an ancient population of hominins started to split apart, forever changing the course of human history. While one portion of this population stayed put, the other trudged to Europe and settled there, initiating a period of geographic isolation in which the two groups accumulated their own genetic traits gradually, generation after generation.
Read More: Who Were the Neanderthals?
Over time, the two groups turned into two separate species, with Homo sapiens arising in Africa and Homo neanderthalensis appearing in Europe. And it was there that these so-called Neanderthals would contend with the impossibly cold conditions of the Ice Age, adapting to the temperatures by becoming shorter, broader and bigger-brained.
What Were Neanderthal Behavior Traits?
Armed with these adaptations, the Neanderthals thrived for thousands of years, producing an ample record of their activities throughout that time. And more than transmitting their genetic material to the genomes of many modern individuals, they also left many material traces from their lives, allowing archaeologists and anthropologists to speculate about their behavior.
Overall, scientists suspect that the Neanderthals behaved in an isolated, insular way, though they also showed adaptability and intelligence in several areas. Targeting an array of prey animals according to the season, they made and manipulated an assortment of tools and probably produced simple speech. Not only that, but they also participated in symbolic behaviors, dabbling in art, personal adornment and ritual burial, according to some scientists.
Archaeologists tend to agree that the Neanderthals occupied open settlements or took shelter from the cold in caves, cycling through a couple of separate settlements according to the time of year. In these sites, they typically resided alongside 12 to 25 relatives.
Though these tribes usually stuck to themselves, they weren’t wholly isolated. Studies suggest that they probably interacted with 10 to 20 neighboring troops, and sometimes as many as 50, with whom they shared social identities and maintained associations for mating, manufacturing and collective coping in times of trouble.
The social organization of these tribes is still stuck in the shadows, though some genetic studies state that the females pursued partners in neighboring troops in an attempt to avoid inbreeding. And while some sites show the telltale signs of treatment for the sick and injured, so, too, appear the traces of intraspecies violence, suggesting a complexity of social interaction that’s similar to our own.
Anatomically, the Neanderthals were omnivores, though scientists suspect that they consumed more meat than plants thanks to the reduced availability of flora in their cold climate. In fact, the chemical composition of several Neanderthal skeletons substantiates this, showing scientists that the average Neanderthal diet consisted of meat, meat and more meat (with the addition of plant material only occasionally).
As such, the Neanderthals played the part of an apex predator, targeting species according to the seasons. Munching on reindeer in the winter and red deer in the summer, the Neanderthals also ate aurochs, mammoths and boars — among other animals — though they weren’t always as widely available.
Fans of flavor, the Neanderthals applied an assortment of tricks to make their meals tastier, pounding, crushing and cooking their food over fires prior to consumption. And though archaeologists aren’t absolutely certain whether the Neanderthals manufactured these fires themselves, the species frequently manipulated flames, according to the piles of ash in many of their settlements.
Some scientists say that the sophistication of these tools testifies to the Neanderthals’ astute observational abilities, while others think that their toolmaking was too specialized to share and spread without words and sentences. That said, whether the language of the Neanderthal was necessary to make and manipulate these tools or not, studies do demonstrate a shared neurological basis for toolmaking and speech.
Ultimately, while scientists still struggle to pinpoint the particulars of Neanderthal language and speech, anatomical and genetic analyses suggest that they possessed auditory and speech abilities similar to ours.
Neanderthals weren’t constrained to verbal communication. Whether or not they spoke, archaeologists speculate that they also articulated themselves symbolically, creating a material culture of art and adornment.
Scratching the walls of their caves with spots, slashes and other abstractions and splashing them with paints and pigments, the Neanderthals also decorated themselves with beads, bones and shells and collected an assortment of unusual articles, such as crystals and animal skulls, which they stashed in their settlements.
Some scientists add that the Neanderthal’s tendency to deliberately bury their dead represents their symbolic thinking, too. And though there’s no single burial that’s universally interpreted as an instance of symbolism, the analysis of pollen particles at some sites suggests that the Neanderthals did decorate their dead with flowers, such as yarrow and bachelor’s button, before burial.
One of the clearest signs of their intelligence, Neanderthal toolmaking centered around the creation of sophisticated stone flakes (though they fashioned tools out of other materials, too). To form these flakes, the innovative Neanderthal selected a small lump of stone and struck slivers off the sides until it took the shape of a shell — flat on one side and spherical on the other. They then smashed the top of the stone several times over, hacking off a series of similarly sized slices, which they then wielded as tools.
The Neanderthals used some of these flakes without any added modification, though they turned some into points, spears, scrapers, awls and axes — among types of tools — for a wider assortment of applications.
For instance, though they thrust or threw their stone-tipped spears into their prey, they selected scrapers and awls to prepare and punch holes in hides, which they then tied together with torn animal tissues to create a simple form of clothing.
What Happened to the Neanderthals?
Read More: Why Did Neanderthals Disappear?
In fact, though it’s a popular theory that the Neanderthals were wiped away around 40,000 years ago when their close cousins from Africa — our own species — started streaming into their European territories, there's not much in the archaeological record to indicate that the Neanderthals disappeared due to interspecies violence alone.
Instead, a confluence of factors probably played a part in the extinction of the species, with small population sizes, sicknesses, worsening climate conditions and interspecies competition and assimilation, all contributing to their disappearance in different areas and times.
These findings challenge the previously held views of this species as primitive beings. Understanding their unique capability for language and their sophisticated use of tools to maintain their diet underscores the importance of continued study and excavation of archeological sites.