National Geographic : 1996 Jan
paleontologist at the Croatian Natural History Museum. "This was one of their shelters." Analysis of Neandertal bones discovered here in the 1970s has yielded provocative clues to the lives of these hunter-gatherers, who occupied this cave some 50 millennia ago. Fine cut marks and unusual fractures-similar to those made on the bones of butchered ani mals-suggest that Neandertals practiced cannibalism, either from hunger or as some kind of death ritual. But finds at other Cro atian caves suggest another, more compas sionate side to the Neandertals. A skull fragment found at a nearby Neandertal rock-shelter shows evidence of a serious t head wound that had healed. Someone had taken care of the vic tim for a long time. Staring into the gloom, I imagine the cave's ancient inhab itants, wrapped in bear skins, huddled near a fire. The Articles inthis series focus own genus and the hominid haunches of a rein- Much of this research was s deer roast in the fire. A mother nurses her infant. Children playfully throw pieces of bone into the flames. An old woman tends the wounds of a hunter with an herbal ointment. The strong smells of smoke, unwashed bodies, and rotting carcasses thick en the air. Flames highlight the Neandertals' faces, accentuating their broad noses and the thick browridges over their eyes. They lack the strong chins and high foreheads of modern hu mans. Instead their skulls slope back low over their brains. Beneath their eyes, their faces jut forward, making their cheekbones angle to the side rather than facing front, as ours do. For many months I have been trailing these early humans, slipping through dark caves KENNETH GARRETT frequently covers ancient peoples and civilizations for the GEOGRAPHIC. He photographed "The Timeless Vision of Teotihua can" in last month's issue. on st Un such as this one to reach their haunts, holding their stone tools and bone fragments in my hands. Gradually, I have discarded the old ste reotype of Neandertals as insensitive brutes. So have most scientists. In the past, scholars did indeed view Neandertals as hulking subhumans of low intelligence who lacked the anatomical or intellectual ability to speak. Neandertals left scant evidence that they could create art. They appeared uninventive; their toolmaking skills seemed primitive. Recent excavations and analysis have demonstrated that Neandertal tools in fact required a high level S . of craftsmanship and mental skills as adept as modern humans'. Neandertals deftly worked pieces of flint into knives, scrap ers, points, and blades. They orga nized group hunts and took care of the early members of our weak and the sick, that preceded them. norted by your Society which suggests a social organization more complex than previously believed. Most scholars now accept the idea that Neandertals spoke at least a rudimentary language. "Neandertals were highly resourceful, highly intelligent creatures," says Fred Smith, a Neandertal specialist at Northern Illinois University. "They were not big, dumb brutes by any stretch of the imagination. They were us-only different." And that, for modern man, is the challenge of Neandertals-to understand them as creatures coping with a world that was unlike ours. They lived and died by the rules of carni vores, surviving as animals must in a harsh, cold land. Yet they were large-brained humans, with all the mental complexity that that endowment implies. How did they think? How did they feel? Despite all our enticing new clues, the Neandertals remain a people of mystery. Locked in time Flowstone shrouds the skeleton of a middle Pleistocene hominid discovered by cavers near Altamura, Italy, in 1993. With fewer than 30 Neandertal skeletons known to science, such finds are anthropological gold. Altamura also contains thousands of animal bones, probably washed down ancient sinkholes. SUPERINTENDENCYOF PUGLIA NationalGeographic,January1996 -- . II.. . .. .I"