A group of footprints left in muddy sand 80,000 years ago gives us a better idea of what a Neanderthal social group would have looked like long before Homo sapiens appeared to ruin the neighborhood.
A Stone Age Piece of Life
A rapidly growing set of archaeological evidence shows that Neanderthals symbolically thought, made art and jewelry, buried their dead, and probably cared for their sick and wounded. We have direct evidence of what they ate, what types of tools they used, and how they made these tools. But when it comes to which groups they lived in and how those groups were organized, anthropologists can best examine how modern hunters and gatherers live under similar conditions. If Neanderthals lived the way hunters and gatherers live today, they probably spent most of their time in groups of 1
This agrees well with estimates of how many people could have lived in some of the Neanderthal residential areas excavated by archaeologists. These are good ways to develop ideas about Neanderthal social groups, but they are still indirect. On the other hand (ha!) Archaeological evidence can not be more direct than footprints.
Since 2012, archaeologists at Le Rozel, Normandy, have carefully discovered 257 Neanderthal prints and eight hand prints in a layer of fine, dark sand that was deposited 80,000 years ago. Amidst the remains of making stone tools, slaughtering animals and fires, the prints are a spooky snapshot of the Neanderthals who die for their lives.
And archaeologists can be pretty sure that the prints came from Neanderthals. Although the evidence keeps pointing to the idea that early humans have ventured much further, much faster than we have previously conceded, it is still a problem to believe that Homo sapiens was traveling in Western Europe 80,000 years ago.
Jeremy Duveau of the French National Museum of Natural History and his colleagues also compared the size and shape of Le Rozel's footprints with Homo sapiens and much earlier hominine called Australopithecines (recorded in a trackway in Laetoli, Tanzania ). The Le Rozel prints were proportionally wider, especially in the middle part of the foot, than Homo sapiens . And the Le Rozel prints indicated thicker, more robust feet with flatter arches than the average. Homo sapiens – exactly what you would expect from the fossil remains of Neanderthal Feet.
This makes Le Rozel a very rare, very important site, as archaeologists have so far found only nine more Neanderthals in four places throughout Eurasia. And aside from 64,000-year-old hand stencils attached to the walls of the Spanish Maltravieso Cave, the eight handprints left in the Rozel mud are the only Neanderthal handprints ever found.
A younger crowd
Most footprints are just single steps here and there, not long track. But they give archaeologists an idea of how many Neanderthals lived in Le Rozel at the same time. In the Pleistocene dunes of Le Rozel muddy sand would have held the tracks well, and wind-blown sand would have filled and covered them quickly. Archaeologists can therefore almost certainly assume that all Neanderthals whose prints appeared in the same sediment layer ran around Le Rozel at the same time.
According to Duveau and his colleagues, the imprints have a presence between 10 and 13 on Neanderthals. This is consistent with other anthropologists' estimates of the size of Neanderthal groups. The Le Rozel group seems to have been relatively small compared to modern hunter-gatherers, but not small enough to be unusual.
The footprints also shed light on the composition of the Neanderthals group, as scientists can use the length and footprint of a person to estimate a person's size and physique. Anthropologists already know the average body height to footprint ratio for modern humans, but for Neanderthals, Duveau and his colleagues had to go a long way. (Be prepared: this will be a little esoteric.) From the length of the footprint, it is easy to calculate the length of the second metatarsal bone (one of the metatarsal bones), as it correlates very well with the foot's total length. And we have enough Neanderthal fossils to know that the second metatarsal is usually about 17% as long as the femur (Homo sapiens) (19459016). The femur length can in turn be used to calculate the total height of a person.
At least one of the Le Rozel Neanderthals seems to have been unusually tall and about 175 cm tall. That's just over the average of 168 cm (5 feet 6) for a Neanderthal man. Given the size of the prints, the group seems to consist mainly of children and adolescents at least four to one taller than adults. The smallest fume hoods on the site were just 11.2 cm long and about the size of a 2-year-old child.
The high proportion of Neanderthal children in Le Rozel is a bit different from most modern hunter-gatherer groups, which tend to have more adults. And it also stands out from the few places where groups of Neanderthals could suddenly have died in a catastrophic event, as these groups usually have more adults than children. For example, archaeologists in El Sidron Cave in Spain found the remains of seven adult Neanderthals, five adolescents and one infant. But archaeologists are generally not sure if places like El Sidron or Sima de los Huesos actually preserve the remnants of groups that died in one fell swoop.
If the groups of fossilized Neanderthals lived in El Sidron and Sima de los Huesos and did not die together, the Le Rozel prints give the first glimpse of what a Neanderthal group looked like. But if the other sites are actually fatal snapshots of Neanderthals, Le Rozel shows that not all Neanderthal groups looked the same. This kind of social diversity is not really surprising. After all, not every human family has the same structure, and we have every reason to believe that Neanderthals are not so different from us.
PNAS, 2019. DOI: 10.1073 / pnas.19011789116; (Via DOIs).