Flipper Beware!

Flipper Beware!

Neanderthals Ate Dolphins and Seals

When I was growing up I enjoyed watching reruns of the television series Flipper. As a little kid, I was quite fond of this unusually intelligent dolphin.

According to new research, Neanderthals were fond of dolphins as well.* But instead of delighting in watching them perform, these hominids liked to eat them.

Neanderthals appear in the fossil record between 250,000 and 150,000 years ago and go extinct about 30,000 years ago. They lived in western Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. Popular views about human origins position Neanderthals as immediate predecessors to modern humans. Other more sophisticated treatments of human evolution, like multiregionalism, argue that these hominids gave rise only to European people groups.

Because of their potentially prominent role in human evolution, anthropologists are interested in Neanderthal biology and behavior. This interest motivated an international team of paleoanthropologists and archeologists to analyze the fossil and archeological remains from two coastal caves located in Gibraltar. These caves held several kinds of artifacts that included Neanderthal-made products located at specific levels and layers within the cave, and also artifacts attributed to modern humans found at different sites within the cave. Associated with these finds were fossilized animal bones interpreted as the food stuff leftover from hunting and gathering expeditions.

Cataloging the species that comprise the animal remains provided researchers some insight into the behavior of Neanderthals and some of the first modern humans. For both the Neanderthal and the modern human locales, researchers documented mollusk shells and the remains of red deer, ibex, wild boar, bear, birds, tortoises, and fish, as well as dolphins and seals. Additionally, the scientists discovered rhinoceros remains associated with the artifacts left behind by modern humans.

The researchers interpreted these results as evidence that Neanderthals and modern humans had similar hunting and gathering practices, and, therefore, had identical cognitive capabilities. They were particularly impressed with the ability of Neanderthals to make use of dolphins and seals as a food source. They argue that to effectively do so means that Neanderthals had some sense of the seasonal activities of these animals. Dolphins are known to beach themselves at certain times of the year. It appears as if Neanderthals and modern humans took advantage of beached animals. Seals come ashore during mating season. Presumably, Neanderthals and modern humans clubbed these animals to death during mating season. Interestingly, only juvenile seal remains were recovered from the Neanderthal sites, indicating that they likely went after easier targets.

Based on this new insight, some anthropologists conclude that Neanderthals had skills that compared to modern humans alive at that time, since they seemed to have exploited the same range of resources as modern humans, and likely used similar tactics to hunt and gather. If so, does this mean that Neanderthals are no different than modern humans? What does this discovery mean for the RTB model of human origins?

The RTB View of Hominids

RTB’s biblical creation model views the hominids, like Neanderthals, found in the fossil record as animals created by God’s direct intervention. These creatures existed for a time and then went extinct. RTB’s model considers the hominids to be remarkable creatures that walked erect and possessed some level of limited intelligence and emotional capacity. This allowed these animals to employ crude tools and even adopt some level of “culture” much like baboons, gorillas, and chimpanzees. While the RTB model posits that the hominids were created by God’s divine fiat, they were not spiritual beings, made in his image. The RTB model reserves this status exclusively for modern humans.

The RTB model treats the hominids as analogous to, but distinct from, the great apes. Because of this, the RTB model predicts that anatomical, physiological, biochemical, and genetic similarities will exist among the hominids and modern humans to varying degrees. But, since, the hominids were not made in God’s image, they are expected to be clearly distinct from modern humans, particularly in their cognitive capacity, behavior, “technology,” and “culture.”

In summary, the RTB model predicts that the hominids, including Neanderthals, should be biologically and behaviorally distinct from modern humans. Clearly, this is the case from a biological standpoint.

Neanderthal Biology

Most paleoanthropologists now maintain that Neanderthals represent an evolutionary side branch and dead end. This position derives support from anatomical and developmental studies and analyses of ancient DNA isolated from Neanderthal remains. All research indicates that Neanderthals not only are a distinct species from modern humans, but also could not have evolved to produce the first human beings. (For a detailed discussion of this work, see Who Was Adam?)

These results all bode well for the RTB human origins model. But what about Neanderthal behavior? Maybe Neanderthals didn’t evolve into modern humans. But maybe they independently developed intelligent behavior, similar to modern humans.

Neanderthal Behavior

The vast proportion of the archeological record associated with Neanderthals indicates that these creatures behaved in relatively unsophisticated ways compared to modern humans. (This is discussed in more detail in Who Was Adam?)

Neanderthals made comparatively simpler tools with relatively unsophisticated manufacturing practices compared to modern humans. They left behind no real evidence for symbolic thought and advanced cognitive capacity. They did not produce art or music. They showed no evidence for religious expression. Though these creatures did bury their dead, the burials were clearly non-ritualistic in nature.

In spite of all this other evidence, do the newly recognized hunting and gathering practices of Neanderthals indicate that perhaps they had more sophisticated capabilities than previously thought?

Not necessarily. First of all, the sophistication of Neanderthal hunting and gathering practices compared to those of modern humans remains contentious among anthropologists. A previous study that examined the isotopic composition of skeletal remains seemed to suggest that Neanderthal practices were much less advanced than those of modern humans when it came to exploiting animal resources. According to this research, modern humans tended to go after food resources that were much more difficult to hunt and collect than did their Neanderthal contemporaries.

The fossil evidence recovered from the caves of coastal Gibraltar could be interpreted in a way that more closely agrees with the bone isotope study. It could be that the animal remains represented creatures that were relatively easy to gather and hunt. Both Neanderthals and modern humans would take advantage of easy to access food stuff. But modern humans also seemed to be capable of hunting animals that were exceptionally difficult to kill, like rhinoceros. Only modern human locales in the caves had the remains of these mighty creatures.

Rhinos would be extremely dangerous to hunt and hard to kill. To use these creatures as a food source would require extremely sophisticated hunting techniques that undoubtedly relied on cooperative and complex interactions among the members of the hunting party.

Just because Neanderthals were making use of seals and dolphins as a food source doesn’t mean they had understanding of seasonal variation. Could it be that they made use of these marine mammals seasonally because that was the only time that they were available?

This recent study of the archeological and fossil remains provides important insight into the behavior of Neanderthals. Yet, it doesn’t reveal any new information that necessarily challenges the RTB view of the hominids. Clearly, as assented to by the model, Neanderthals had some intellectual capacity. But when all the data about Neanderthal behavior is considered in its entirety, it doesn’t support the notion that they possessed sophisticated cognitive abilities on par with those of modern humans.

*This study made science news headlines when first published. I discussed the scientific and biblical implications of this research on the September 24, 2008 edition of Science News Flash. This podcast offers a unique Christian perspective on headline-grabbing discoveries. A free subscription is available through iTunes.