Archaeologists change view that Neanderthals were cave dwellers

For as long as archaeologists have been studying Neanderthals, they have always primarily considered them cave dwellers, but the excavation of a recently discovered open-air campsite in Israel may change that perception.

A team led by Professor Erella Hovers of Hebrew University Institute of Archaeology found that the Ein Qashish (EQ) archaeological site near present-day Haifa served as a campsite for 10,000 years when the Neanderthals walked the Earth 50,000 years ago.

Up to now, the prevailing thought is that our early ancestors stayed in caves for most of their short lives, but Ein Qashish proves that Neanderthals’ lives extended beyond the caves and that they camped under the stars for long stretches year after year.

A tweet from a Dutch blogger shows an illustration of what a campsite may have looked like with the caption:

“Neanderthals settled ca. 60,000 years ago in Ein Qashish, Israel”

“Skeletal evidence suggests that these remains were associated with Neanderthals,” the team wrote in their report. “The large-scale repeated accumulation of late Middle Paleolithic (MP) remains in the same place on the landscape provides a unique opportunity to address questions of occupation duration and intensity in open-air sites.”

But the Neanderthals who lived in the area could only camp and survive in this open-air campsite for so long before having to return to the caves.

“Human occupation would be feasible from early summer to early autumn, namely some 6–8 months of the year,” the report continues. “The availability of water in the Qishon stream would make the area especially attractive during the summer.”

Also making the area attractive was the diverse vegetation and animal life found there, which is why the team found evidence of hunting and animal processing. The site also served a tactical purpose giving these early humans an advantage to taking down large game.

With the exception of a handful of pollen grains, and traces of vegetation growing on stabilized soils, no plant remains were preserved in EQ. Based on present-day analogues, the riverbank habitats combined with marshes and localized seasonal water bodies suggest a diverse vegetation that likely persisted, at least partially, into the dry summer months and may have been a main attraction for animals and humans.

Located in the narrow water gap between Mt. Carmel and the Tiv’on Hills, the landscape around the site made this area suitable for the hunting of large herbivores, using topography to disadvantage prey.

It’s not clear if the Neanderthals cooked the meat they procured over a fire on the site because there’s no evidence, either due to the muddy conditions at the time or that combined with fire locations moving occupation to occupation.

The proxies of hominid fire use at EQ are conflicting. It is possible to identify in open-air contexts signs of fire use other than clear combustion features. At EQ no evidence was detected for hearths or combustion features. The human occupations at EQ took place in muddy surroundings with high moisture, where ash would dissolve quickly. This may in part explain the absence of macroscopic evidence for fireplaces.

In MP open-air sites, there are no natural or built boundaries of the human settlement, therefore the location of fireplaces may have shifted spatially from one episode of occupation to another. If such was the case at EQ, the signatures of fire use would be lost to the archaeological eye.

Of course, that doesn’t mean they won’t find clear evidence in the future, just not at the moment. However, they did find many flints, which means Neanderthals certainly had the tools to make fire if they wanted to do so. And as recent findings at nearby Qesem Cave reveal, Neanderthals may have made recycling a major part of their lives by reusing broken flints to make smaller tools for cutting and other purposes.

It’s also possible Neanderthals transported their kills back to the caves for cooking.

The discoveries at the site also give us insight into Neanderthal brains.

“We suggest that the repeated use of this location present the retention of memory from one occupation phase to the other,” the report says.

The presence of the campsite indicates that the Neanderthals in the area created an “integrated settlement system.”

An increasing interest in open-air sites and an overall change in the perception of the MP has led researchers to the understanding that both caves and open-air sites should be studied as components of integrated settlement systems.

Open-air sites are an integral part of the settlement systems in the Levant during the MP. Together with cave sites, they constitute complementary components of settlement/mobility systems.

The report concluded that the site appears to have been a residential area featuring many activities, making it a very stable place to be.

We find that each occupation was of ephemeral nature, yet presents a range of activities, suggesting that the locale has been used as a generalized residential site rather than specialized task-specific ones. This role of ‘Ein Qashish did not change through time, suggesting that during the late Middle Paleolithic settlement system in this part of the southern Levant were stable.

It really is a remarkable find and one that promises to continue revealing new secrets in the years to come. We know much about the Neanderthals, but this discovery proves that we don’t know everything about them and that we should revisit our hypotheses. Just like we thought they were just cave dwellers, we could be wrong about other things, too. Even 50,000 years later, we still have a lot to learn.

For more on the misconceptions about Neanderthals, watch this great video from Henry the PaleoGuy below:

Featured Image: Screenshot via Youtube

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