The 81st Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2012)

Weighing the evidence: the significance of symbolic behavior among European Neandertals


Anthropology, University of Victoria

Thursday 2:00-2:15, Grand Ballroom II Add to calendar

With recent data from genetics, paleoneurology and life history studies strongly suggesting a close relationship between Neandertals and modern humans a re-evaluation of their behavioral similarities and differences is warranted. I summarize the genetic, paleoneurological and life history data and briefly discuss new discoveries concerning Neandertal diet/ecology, geographic range and structured use of space to add context but focus on the evidence for symbolic behavior among Neandertals and modern humans in the MP and EUP. I discuss critically the evidence for burials, use of colorants, personal adornment, engravings, and other possible examples of symbolic behavior among each of these populations. Using GIS, I demonstrate that the appearance and continuity of symbol-based behaviors are at once richer in content but patchier in distribution for both of these populations. I conclude that time rather than species affiliation may be a better predictor of so called “modern behaviors”. Thus, I argue that the material culture and lifeways of Late Pleistocene hominins must be understood as historically situated phenomenon. Perceived behavioral differences between Neandertal and modern human populations as well as the transition from the MP to the EUP are best explained with reference to social, demographic and cultural factors instead of, or in addition to, newly evolved biologically based cognitive mechanisms as this is most parsimonious with the archaeological, genetic, paleoneurological and life history data. The results of this study will have important consequences for the development of evolutionary-based cognitive models that are more in step with current archaeological and biological data.

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