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8 March 2011
Neanderthals: copycats or innovators?

The question of whether Neanderthals had the ability to innovate new kinds of tools, and not just imitate, is coming up in scientific circles. For the past few decades, most archeologists assumed that Neanderthal stone tools were simple and roughly shaped. But that assumption may be undermined by the discovery at some Neanderthal sites of thinner, more blade-like stones similar to tools favored by humans during the same time period, leading some experts to assume that Neanderthals were heavily influenced by human culture.
     Now, some archaeologists are viewing Neanderthals in a more favorable light, casting them as an intellectual match for humans and calling into question the widely-held idea that changes in Neanderthal culture were introduced by Homo sapiens.
     The first of the recent studies was set in southern Italy, where researchers examined a group of artifacts known as the Uluzzian culture from about 30,000 years ago. At the time, Neanderthals were making their last stand in Europe, and the climate was seesawing between cold snaps and warmer periods. In such harsh and varying climates, the tools that Neanderthals traditionally used may not have been as useful, forcing them to improvise.
     A central question forsaid Julien Riel-Salvatore, lead author of the study, was whether or not the Uluzzian style could have developed independently of modern humans, who were creating similar technologies to the north. The Uluzzian area, was highly isolated, so the toolkit could have developed independently of human influence. The findings indicate that even though Neanderthals eventually died off, it's possible that they attempted to adapt to their changing ecosystem.
     The other new Neanderthal study was conducted by the archaeologist Thomas Higham of Oxford University. His research was focused at the Grotte du Renne, a site in France that archeologists have excavated since the 1930s. Researchers there have been exploring a similar tool grouping, from around the same time period as the Uluzzian, known as the Chatelperronian culture. The set of tools was ascribed to Neanderthals, because Neanderthal remains were found there. The combination of bones and tools proved to be a convincing argument, until Higham's paper showed definitively that the site at Grotte du Renne was disturbed long after its initial use. Because of this disturbance, it calls into question whether Neanderthals were even around when the inhabitants at the Grotte du Renne were making Chatelperronian tools.
     Higham's paper casted doubt on the idea that Neanderthals created the Uluzzian culture. Riel-Salvatore agreed with Higham that it was still too early to rule out Neanderthal toolmakers at either Chatelperronian or Uluzzian sites, and that more research into the subject was needed.
     Further muddying the issue is the fact that no one is certain whether the new, sharper tools were really more effective in coping with the cooling climate than Neanderthal tools. The blunt tools favored by Neanderthals were more clumsy-looking than the bladed stone tools their human contemporaries used, but were produced more efficiently and lasted longer. If Neanderthals did not develop new tools, it may not have been because they were insufficiently intelligent, but because they were already smart enough to know they didn't need the cool new tools that the humans used.

Edited from ScienceLine (7 March 2011)

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