Cambridge Archaeological Journal

Research Article

Behavioural Complexity in Eurasian Neanderthal Populations: a Chronological Examination of the Archaeological Evidence

Michelle C. Langleya1, Christopher Clarksona2 and Sean Ulma3

a1 School of Social Science, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Queensland 4072, Australia; Email: m.langley@uq.edu.au

a2 School of Social Science, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Queensland 4072, Australia; Email: c.clarkson@uq.edu.au

a3 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Unit, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Queensland 4072, Australia; Email: s.ulm@uq.edu.au

Abstract

Whether Neanderthals were capable of behaviours commonly held to be the exclusive preserve of modern humans — such as abstract thought, language, forward planning, art, reverence of the dead, complex technology, etc. — has remained a fundamental question in human evolutionary studies since their discovery more than a hundred years ago. A lack of quantitative data on Neanderthal symbolism and complex behaviour is a key obstacle to the resolution of this question, with temporal analyses usually confined to single regions or short time periods. Here we present an approach to the issue of symbolism and complex behaviours among Neanderthals that examines the frequency of key proxies for symbolic and complex behaviours through time, including burials, modified raw materials, use of pigments, use of composite technology and body modification. Our analysis demonstrates that the number and diversity of complex Neanderthal behaviours increases between 160,000 and 40,000 years ago. Whether this pattern derives from preservation factors, the evolution of cognitive and behavioural complexity, cumulative learning, or population size is discussed. We take the view that it is not the apparent sophistication of a single specific item, nor the presence or absence of particular types in the archaeological record that is important. Instead, we believe that it is the overall abundance of artefacts and features indicative of complex behaviours within the Neanderthal archaeological record as a whole that should provide the mark of Neanderthal capabilities and cultural evolutionary potential.

Michelle Langley is a Masters candidate in the School of Social Science at the University of Queensland. Her research focuses on how behavioural modernity is represented in the archaeological record of Pleistocene Sahul, with particular interest in building a data base for constructive comparison with the Eurasian archaeological record.

Chris Clarkson is a postdoctoral fellow and lecturer in the School of Social Science at the University of Queensland. His work in lithic technology began in Australia, but now continues in France, Africa and India, with research centring on Neanderthal capabilities, modern human dispersal and the archaeology of Toba ash sites in India.

Sean Ulm is a lecturer in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies at the University of Queensland. He specializes in the coastal archaeology of Australasia and the Pacific with a particular interest in the development and application of chronological analyses in the elucidation of change. Sean is Editor of Australian Archaeology.