Unless time travel becomes possible, it’ll always be hard to study ancient human history. But scientists have developed a number of ways to reconstruct the lives of early humans .
Forty thousand years ago, there were thought to be two types of people roaming Earth — Neandertals and our direct ancestors, the Cro Magnons.
There’s been intense debate about how they differed from each other in everything from art to religion to hunting. Teresa Steele is an anthropologist at Stanford University. She studies sites in western Europe where Cro Magnon and Neandertal lived 130,000 to 12,000 years ago. She focuses on the bones of animals they ate to reconstruct their lives and their world.
For example, animal teeth indicate animal age. Steele studied the teeth of red deer to find that both Neandertals and Cro Magnons hunted adult animals. That’s difficult without spears or other effective weapons. So they might have shared some tools and hunting techniques. Animal bones also provide information about the people who left them behind. Marks on animal bones might indicate what kinds of tools were used in butchering.
Teresa Steele: It’s definitely fun to think about. It’s what keeps the topic interesting, to imagine what these people, however many tens of thousands of years ago were doing …
And reconstructing the lives of early humans could help answer an old question — why did our ancestors survive, while the Neandertals disappeared?
According to Dr. Richard Klein, a colleague of Dr. Steele, the Neandertals and Cro Magnons (our direct ancestors) looked very different from each other. Cro Magnons would be hard to distinguish from you or me. Neandertals, on the other hand, had what would look to us like funny, misshapen heads. Their noses were much wider and their heads would have seemed stretched and squashed.
In terms of art, Neandertals don’t appear to have practiced art, while Cro Magnons were painting and making music. On the other hand, they may have both been equally skilled at hunting. Both were able to successfully hunt large, adult animals. Wolves and other predators that have no tools instead usually hunt young or elderly animals, which are easier to catch.
Drs. Klein and Steele are planning to head to Africa for more fieldwork beginning in late June 2003.
Excerpts from interview with Dr. Steele:
[T39; 1:40] … but the more recent, fully modern humans had a different signature, the red deer that they were hunting are of different ages than the Neandertals were getting.
[T40] So now I’m looking at that further to see — is that because potentially these more recent people had some sort of projectile technology, or is it because — we also have evidence that — these people had higher population density, so were they exerting some sort of pressure on the red deer population?
[T43] You try to draw on as many lines of evidence as you can. More direct evidence – it depends on what types of questions. The direct evidence is we know they were eating red deer and so they were definitely making that choice. Then you can also tell they were eating it because there are cut marks on the bones, or you can see where they butchered the different animals. You can look at the stone tools and there’s been some studies looking at residue on stone tools, and saying the stone tools were used. There are blood marks on the stone tools for butchering animals or plant remains, or the way the stone tool chips and wears may indicate that it was used for sawing wood or something like that.
[T75] I think there is a lot to be done, particularly timely right now, about Paleolithic impacts on the environment and managing different environments, and what are pristine environments, and how do we exploit resources, and can we have sustainable exploitation of resources. I don’t think we’ve answered any of those questions yet, but there’s a lot of information to be gained there about how we interact with the environment.
[T78] There previously has been a myth that hunter-gatherers were — there was a completely sustainable life-way and they were treading lightly on the land. And now I think we think that was not always the case, that humans do have the capacity to overexploit resources, and live sustainably as well.
[T61] We can make some pretty educated inferences about understanding what people were eating and perhaps the seasonality of the sites. For instance, animal remains can give us insight into whether a site was occupied in the winter or spring. When you get into higher level questions about ritual and social structure and things like that, those are questions we have a lot harder time answering. They’re lot greater challenges that involve a lot more guesswork or reconstruction or imagination.
[T110] It’s definitely fun to think about. It’s what keeps the topic interesting, to imagine what these people, however many tens of thousands of years ago were doing, but it is definitely something to imagine and difficult to reconstruct, for sure.
[T112] But it definitely is what keeps it interesting. And when you imagine it in your head, it’s what makes the people kind of come alive. It makes it fun to work on.
[T117] When it comes to the other aspects of culture that don’t preserve so well in the archaeological record, if there isn’t evidence in the archaeological record, it’s going to remain part of the imagination.