Conceiving of “Them” When Before There Was Only “Us”

  • Melanie L. ChangEmail author
  • April Nowell


Questions of identity are fundamental to even the most empirical of human evolutionary studies. These questions structure the hypotheses that we, as researchers, test in ways that we, as actors embedded in specific societal contexts, may not always be entirely aware of. Whether we approach the Neandertals as if they represent “Us” or “Them” is an important distinction, because it informs the framing of our null hypotheses. A heart-centered approach to the study of our evolutionary past that rejects the subject/object dichotomy can free us to recognize that the emotional resonance inherent in human evolutionary studies can be as much a strength of our discipline as a weakness. Viewing the Middle to Late Pleistocene record through this lens allows us to formulate hypotheses that follow logically from granting Neandertals a fundamental humanity and are not less testable than hypotheses formulated under the assumption that the Neandertals were not fundamentally human. We argue that it may be both enlightening and productive to expect cognitive and behavioral similarities between Neandertals and modern humans, rather than differences.


Neandertals Paleolithic Symbolism Personal ornaments Pop culture 


  1. Banks, W. E., d’Errico, F., Peterson, A. T., Kageyama, M., Sima, A., & Sánchez-Goñi, M.-F. (2008). Neandertal extinction by competitive exclusion. PLoS, 3(12), e3972. Scholar
  2. Barnard, P. J., Davidson, I., & Byrne, R. W. (2016). Toward a richer theoretical scaffolding for interpreting archaeological evidence concerning cognitive evolution. In T. Wynn & F. Coolidge (Eds.), Cognitive models in Palaeolithic archaeology (pp. 45–67). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bar-Yosef, O. (2006). Neanderthals and modern humans: A different interpretation. In N. J. Conard (Ed.), When Neanderthals and modern humans met (pp. 467–482). Tubingen: Kerns-Verlag.Google Scholar
  4. Bar-Yosef, O., & Bordes, J. G. (2010). Who were the makers of the Châtelperronian culture? Journal of Human Evolution, 59, 586–593.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bar-Yosef Mayer, D. E., Vandermeersch, B., & Bar-Yosef, O. (2009). Modern behavior of anatomically modern humans: shells and ochre from Qafzeh Cave, Israel. Journal of Human Evolution, 56, 307–314.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Benazzi, S., Douka, K., Fornai, C., Bauer, C. C., Kullmer, O., Svoboda, J., et al. (2011). Early dispersal of modern humans in Europe and implications for Neanderthal behaviour. Nature, 479(7374), 525–528.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Birdsell, J. B. (1970). Local group composition among the Australian Aborigines: A critique of the evidence from fieldwork conducted since 1930. Current Anthropology, 11, 115–141.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Boule, M. (1911–13). L’Homme Fossile de La Chapelle-aux-Saints, extrait des Annales de paléontologie. Masson: Paris.Google Scholar
  9. Bouzouggar, A., Barton, N., Vanhaeren, M., d’Errico, F., Collcutt, S., Higham, T., et al. (2007). Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 104(24), 9964–9969.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Boyd, R., & Richardson, P. J. (1987). The evolution of ethnic markers. Current Anthropology, 2(1), 65–79.Google Scholar
  11. Caron, F., d’Errico, F., Del Moral, P., Santos, F., & Zilhão, J. (2011). The reality of Neandertal symbolic behavior at the Grotte du Renne, Arcy-sur-Cure, France. PLoS One, 6(6), e21545.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Cartmill, M. (2002). Paleoanthropology: Science or mythological charter? Journal of Anthropological Research, 58(2), 183–201.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Chase, P. (2003). The emergence of culture: The evolution of a uniquely human way of life. New York: Springer.Google Scholar
  14. Cieri, R., Churchill, L., Franciscus, S. E., Tan, R. G., Hare, J., & B. (2014). Craniofacial feminization, social tolerance, and the origins of behavioral modernity. Current Anthropology, 55(4), 419–443.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Collard, M., Tarle, M., Sandgathe, D., & Allan, A. (2016). Faunal evidence for a difference in clothing use between neanderthals and early modern humans in Europe. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 44(B), 235–245.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Coon, C. (1939). The races of Europe. New York: Macmillan.Google Scholar
  17. d’Errico, F., Henshilwood, C., Vanhaeren, M., & van Niekerke, K. (2005). Nassarius kraussianus shell beads from Blombos Cave: Evidence for symbolic behaviour in the Middle Stone Age. Journal of Human Evolution, 48(1), 3–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Dalén, L., Orlando, L., Shapiro, B., Brandström-Durling, M., Quam, R., Gilbert, M. T., et al. (2012). Partial genetic turnover in Neandertals: Continuity in the east and population replacement in the west. Molecular Biology and Evolution, 29(8), 1893–1897.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Darwin, C. R. (1859). On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or, the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. London: J. Murray.Google Scholar
  20. Darwin, C. R. (1871). The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. London: John Murray.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Davidson, I. (2014). Cognitive evolution and origins of language and speech. In C. Smith (Ed.), Encyclopedia of global archaeology (pp. 1530–1543). New York: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Davidson, I. (2016). Stone tools: Evidence of something in between culture and cumulative culture? In M. N. Haidle, N. J. Conard, & M. Bolus (Eds.), The nature of culture (pp. 99–120). New York: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Dennell, R. W., Martinon-Torres, M., & Bermudez de Castro, J. M. (2014). Hominin variability, climatic instability and population demography in Middle Pleistocene Europe. Quaternary Science Reviews, 30(11–12), 1511–1524.Google Scholar
  24. Douka, K., Slon, V., Jacobs, Z., Bronk Ramsey, C., Shunkov, M. V., Derevianko, A. P., et al. (2019). Age estimates for hominin fossils and the onset of the Upper Palaeolithic at Denisova Cave. Nature, 565, 640–644.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Drell, J. (2000). Neanderthals: A history of interpretation. Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 19(1), 1–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Dusseldorp, G. L. (2009). A view to a kill: Investigating Middle Palaeolithic subsistence using an optimal foraging perspective. Leiden: Sidestone Press.Google Scholar
  27. Fabre, V., Condemi, S., & Degioanni, A. (2009). Genetic evidence of geographical groups among Neanderthals. PLoS One, 4(4), e5151. Scholar
  28. Flores, J. C. (2011). Diffusion coefficient for modern humans outcompeting Neanderthals. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 280, 189–190.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Fu, Q., et al. (2015). An early modern human from Romania with a recent Neanderthal ancestor. Nature, 524, 216–219.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Gibbons, A. (2012). An annus horribilis for anthropology? Science, 338(6114), 1520.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Gilpin, W., Feldman, M., W., Aoki, K. (2016). An ecocultural model predicts Neanderthal extinction through competition with modern humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113 (8), 2134–2139 doi:
  32. Hammond, M. (1982). The expulsion of the Neanderthals from human ancestry: Marcellin Boule and the social context of scientific research. Social Studies of Science, 12(1), 1–36.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Hardin, G. (1960). The competitive exclusion principle. Science, 131(1409), 1291–1297.Google Scholar
  34. Harmon, A. (2018). Why White Supremacists Are Chugging Milk (and Why Geneticists Are Alarmed). The New York Times
  35. Hemmer, N. (2017). “Scientific racism” is on the rise on the right. But it’s been lurking there for years. Vox Last accessed 31 Oct 2017.
  36. Henke, W., & Tattersall, I. (eds.) (2015). Handbook of Paleoanthropology. Berlin: Springer-VerlagGoogle Scholar
  37. Henshilwood, C. S. (2007). Fully symbolic sapiens behavior: Innovation in the Middle Stone Age at Blombos Cave, South Africa. In P. Mellars, K. Boyle, O. Bar-Yosef, & C. Stringer (Eds.), Rethinking the human revolution (pp. 123–132). Cambridge: MacDonald Institute.Google Scholar
  38. Henshilwood, C. S., & Marean, C. (2003). The origin of modern human behavior. Current Anthropology, 44, 627–651.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Higham, T., Jacob, R., Julien, M., David, F., Basell, L., et al. (2010). Chronology of the Grotte du Renne (France) and implications for the context of ornaments and human remains within the Châtelperronian. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, USA, 107, 20234–20239.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Higham, T., Douka, K., Wood, R., Ramsey, C. B., Brock, F., et al. (2015). The timing and spatiotemporal patterning of Neanderthal disappearance. Nature, 512, 306–309.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Hoffmann, D. L., Angelucci, D. E., Villaverde, V., Zapata, J., & Zilhão, J. (2018). Symbolic use of marine shells and mineral pigments by Iberian Neandertals 115,000 years ago. Scientific Advances, 4, 5255.Google Scholar
  42. Huening, D. (2006). Symbol, index, icon. Last accessed 9 Nov, 2016.
  43. King, W. (1864). The reputed fossil man of the Neanderthal. Quaternary Journal of Science, 1, 88–97.Google Scholar
  44. Koumouzelis, M., Ginter, B., Koz£Owski, J. K., Pawlikowski, M., Bar-Yosef, O., Al-Bert, R. M., et al. (2001). The early Upper Palaeolithic in Greece: The excavations in Klissoura Cave. Journal of Archaeological Science, 28, 515–539.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Kuhlwilm, M., Gronau, I., Hubisz, M. J., de Filippo, C., Prado-Martinez, J., Kircher, M., et al. (2016). Ancient gene flow from early modern humans into Eastern Neanderthals. Nature, 530(7591), 429–433.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Kuhn, S. (2014). Signaling theory and technologies of communication in the Paleolithic. Biological Theory, 9, 42–50. Scholar
  47. Kuhn, S., & Stiner, M. (2007). Paleolithic ornaments: Implications for cognition, demography and identity. Diogenes, 54, 40–48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Kuhn, S. L., Stiner, M. C., Reese, D. S., & Güleç, E. (2001). Ornaments of the earliest Upper Paleolithic: New insights from the Levant. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 98(13), 7641–7646.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Kuhn, S., Belfer-Cohen, A., Barzilai, O., Stiner, M. C., Kerry, K. W., Munro, N., & Bar-Yosef Mayer, D. (2004). The last glacial maximum at Meged Rockshelter, upper Galilee, Israel. Journal of the Israel Prehistoric Society, 34, 5–47.Google Scholar
  50. Landau, M. (1991). Narratives of human evolution. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  51. Linnaeus, C. (1735). Systema Naturae (tenth edition). Systema naturæ per regna tria naturæ, secundum classes, ordines, genera, species, cum characteribus, differentiis, synonymis, locis. Tomus I. Editio decima, reformata. pp. [1–4], 1–824. Holmiæ. (Salvius).Google Scholar
  52. Lycett, S. J. (2014). Dynamics of cultural transmission in Native Americans of the High Great Plains. PLOSOne, 9(11), e112244.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Lycett, S. J. (2015). Differing patterns of material culture intergroup variation on the High Plains: Quantitative analyses of parfleche characteristics vs. moccasin decoration. American Antiquity, 80(4), 714–731.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Marean, C. (2007). Heading north: An Africanist perspective on the replacement of Neanderthals by modern humans. In P. Mellars, Boyle, O. Bar-Yosef, & C. Stringer (Eds.), Rethinking the human revolution (pp. 367–379). Cambridge: MacDonald Institute.Google Scholar
  55. Morin, E., & Laroulandie, V. (2012). Presumed symbolic use by diurnal raptors by Neanderthals. PLoS One, 7, e32856. pmid:22403717.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Müller, U. C., Pross, J., Tzedakis, P. C., Gamble, C., Kotthoff, U., Schmiedl, G., et al. (2011). The role of climate in the spread of modern humans into Europe. Quaternary Sciences Review, 30(3–4), 273–279.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Nash R. F. (2014). Wilderness and the American Mind (5th edition). Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  58. Nott, J. C., & Gliddon, G. R. (1854). Types of mankind. London: Trubner and Company.Google Scholar
  59. Nott, J. C., & Gliddon, G. R. (1857). Indigenous races of the earth. Philadelphia: JB Lippincott and Company.Google Scholar
  60. Nowell, A. (2013). Cognition, behavioral modernity and the archaeological record of the Middle and Early Upper Paleolithic. In G. Hatfield & H. Pittman (Eds.), The evolution of mind, brain, and culture (pp. 236–262). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology Press.Google Scholar
  61. Nowell, A. (2014a). Comment on “craniofacial feminization, social tolerance, and the origins of behavioral modernity” by R. L. Cieri, S. E. Churchill, R. G. Franciscus, J. Tan, B. Hare. Current Anthropology, 55(4), 433–434.Google Scholar
  62. Nowell, A. (2014b). Reversals of fortune: Neandertals and modern humans in the Levantine Middle Paleolithc, a view from the Druze Marsh, North Azraq (Jordan). In Jordan’s prehistory. Past and future research (pp. 23–34). Amman: Department of Antiquities of Jordan.Google Scholar
  63. Nowell, A., & Chang, M. L. (2012). Symbolism in Late European Neanderthals: detection and evolutionary context. Presented in session designated as the Wiley-Blackwell symposium. Portland: American Association of Physical Anthropologists meetings.Google Scholar
  64. Pearce, D. F., & Bonneau, A. (2018). Trouble on the dating scene. Nature Ecology and Evolution.
  65. Peirce, C. S. (1998). Collected papers of Charles Sanders Peirce. In C. Hartshorne & P. Weiss (Eds.), (pp. 1931–1958). Bristol: Thoemmes Press.Google Scholar
  66. Peresani, M., Fiore, I., Gala, M., Romandini, M., & Tagliacozzo, A. (2012). Late Neandertals and the intentional removal of feathers as evidenced from bird bone taphonomy at Fumane Cave 44 ky B.P., Italy. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108, 3888–3893. Scholar
  67. Peterson, N. (1986). Australian territorial organization. Sidney: University of Sidney.Google Scholar
  68. Post, J. E., & Farges, F. (2014). The Hope diamond: Rare gem, historic jewel. Rocks and Minerals, 89, 16–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Prüfer, K., Racimo, F., Patterson, N., Jay, F., Sankararaman, S., Sawyer, S., et al. (2014). The complete genome sequence of a Neanderthal from the Altai Mountains. Nature, 505, 43–49. Scholar
  70. Prüfer, K., de Filippo, C., Grote, S., Mafessoni, F., Korlević, P., Hajdinjak, M., et al. (2017). A high-coverage Neandertal genome from Vindija Cave in Croatia. Science.
  71. Radovčić, D., Sršen, A. O., Radovčić, J., & Frayer, D. W. (2015). Evidence for Neandertal jewelry: Modified white-tailed eagle claws at Krapina. PLoS One, 10(3), e0119802. Scholar
  72. Rapacon, S. (2019). 15 worst college majors for a lucrative career. Kiplingers Accessed Feb 2019.
  73. Reeve, E. (2016). White nonsense: Alt-right trolls are arguing over genetic tests they think “prove” their whiteness. Vice News
  74. Riel-Salvatore, J. (2009). What is a ‘transitional’ industry? The Uluzzian of Southern Italy as a case study. In Sourcebook of Paleolithic transitions (pp. 377–396). New York: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Ríos, L., Kivell, T. L., Lalueza-Fox, C., Estalrrich, A., García-Tabernero, A., Huguet, R., et al. (2019). Skeletal anomalies in the Neandertal family of El Sidrón (Spain) support a role of inbreeding in Neandertal extinction. Scientific Reports, 9, 1967. Scholar
  76. Rodríguez-Vidal, J., d’Errico, F., Pacheco, F. G., Blasco, R., Rosell, J., Jennings, R. P., et al. (2014). A rock engraving made by Neanderthals in Gibraltar. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(37), 13301–13306. Scholar
  77. Roebroeks, W., & Soressi, M. (2016). Neandertals revised. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 113(23), 6372–6379.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  78. Roebroeks, W., Hublin, J.-J., & MacDonald, K. (2011). Continuities and discontinuities in Neandertal presence: A closer look at Western Europe. In N. Ashton, S. Lewis, & C. Stringer (Eds.), Ancient human occupation of Britain (pp. 113–124). New York: Elsvier.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Romandini, M., Peresani, M., Laroulandie, V., Metz, L., Pastoors, A., Vaquero, M., & Slimak, L. (2014). Convergent evidence of eagle talons used by late Neanderthals in Europe: A further assessment on symbolism. PLoS One, 9, e101278. pmid:25010346.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. Roussel, M., & Sorressi, M. (2010). La Grande Roche de la Plématrie à Quinçay (Vienne). L’évolution du Châtelperronien revisitée. In J. Primault (Ed.), Jacques Buisson-Catil (pp. 203–219). Préhistoire entre Vienne et Charente - Hommes et sociétés du Paléolithique, Association des Publications Chauvinoises, mémoire 38.Google Scholar
  81. Sackett, J. R. (1973). Style, function and artifact variability in Palaeolithic assemblages. In C. Renfrew (Ed.), The explanation of culture change (pp. 317–328). Duckworth: The Old Piano Factory.Google Scholar
  82. Sadowski, P. (2009). From interactions to symbols: A systems view of the evolution of signs and communication. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. Sandgathe, D. M., Dibble, H. L., Goldberg, P., McPherron, S. P., Turq, A., Niven, L., & Hodgkins, J. (2011). Timing of the appearance of habitual fire use. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(29).
  84. Sankararaman, S., Mallick, S., Patterson, N., & Reich, D. (2016). The combined landscape of Denisovan and Neanderthal ancestry in present-day humans. Current Biology, 26(9), 1241–1247. Scholar
  85. Simonti, C., Vernot, B., Bastarache, L., Bottinger, E., Carrell, D. S., Chisholm, R. L., et al. (2016). The phenotypic legacy of admixture between modern humans and Neandertals. Science, 351(6274), 737–741. Scholar
  86. Soffer, O. (2009). Defining modernity, establishing rubicons, imagining the other—and the Neanderthal enigma. In M. Camps & P. Chauhan (Eds.), Sourcebook of Paleolithic transitions (pp. 43–64). New York: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  87. Solecki, R. (1971). Shanidar: The first flower people. New York: Knopf.Google Scholar
  88. Stewart, J. R., & Stringer, C. B. (2012). Human evolution out of Africa: The role of refugia and climate change. Science, 335, 1317–1321.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  89. Stiner, M. (2014). Finding a common bandwidth: Causes of convergence and diversity in Paleolithic Beads. Biological Theory, 9(1), 51–64.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  90. Straffon, L. M. (2016). Signaling in style: On cooperation, identity and the origins of visual art. In F. Panebianco & E. Serrelli (Eds.), Understanding cultural traits: A multicultural perspective on cultural diversity (pp. 357–373). New York: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  91. Straus, L. G. (1991). Southwestern Europe at the last glacial maximum. Current Anthropology, 32(2), 189–199.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  92. Tostevin, G. (2007). Social intimacy, artefact visibility and acculturation models of Neanderthal–modern human interaction. In P. Mellars, K. Boyle, O. Bar-Yosef, & C. Stringer (Eds.), Rethinking the human revolution: New behavioural and biological perspectives on the origin and dispersal of modern humans (pp. 341–358). Cambridge: MacDonald Institute.Google Scholar
  93. Trinkaus, E. & Shipman P. (1992). The Neandertals: Changing the image of mankind. Knopf.Google Scholar
  94. Vanhaeren, M., d’Errico, F., Stringer, C., James, S. L., Todd, J. A., & Mienis, H. K. (2006). Middle Paleolithic shell beads in Israel and Algeria. Science, 312(5781), 1785–1788. Scholar
  95. Vernot, B., & Akey, J. M. (2015). Complex history of admixture between modern humans and Neandertals. American Journal of Human Genetics, 96(3), 448–453. Scholar
  96. Virchow, R. (1872). Untersuchung des Neanderthal-Schädels. Zool.- Ethnol, 4, 157–165.Google Scholar
  97. Welker, F., Hajdinjak, M., Talamo, S., Jaouen, K., Dannemann, M., David, F., et al. (2016). Palaeoproteomic evidence identifies archaic hominins associated with the Châtelperronian at the Grotte du Renne. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 113(40), 11162–11167. Scholar
  98. Weyrich, L. S., Duchene, S., Soubrier, J., Arriola, L., Llamas, B., Breen, J., et al. (2017). Neanderthal behaviour, diet, and disease inferred from Ancient DNA in dental calculus. Nature.
  99. White, R. (1992). Beyond art—Toward an understanding of the origins of material representation in Europe. Annual Review of Anthropology, 21, 537–564.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  100. White, R. (2001). Personal ornaments from the Grotte du Renne at Arcy-sur-Cure. Athena Review, 2, 41–46.Google Scholar
  101. Whiten, A., Goodall, J., McGrew, W. C., Nishida, T., Reynolds, V., Sugiyama, Y., et al. (2001). Charting cultural variation in chimpanzees. Behavior, 138(11), 1481–1516.Google Scholar
  102. Wilkins, J. (2010). Style, symboling, and interaction in Middle Stone Age societies. Explorations in Anthropology, 10(1), 102–125.Google Scholar
  103. Wobst, H. M. (1977). Stylistic behavior and information exchange. In C. E. Cleland (Ed.), Papers for the director: Research essays in honor of James B. Griffin (pp. 317–342). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan.Google Scholar
  104. Wynn, T., & Coolidge, F. (2012). How to think like a Neandertal. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  105. Wynn, T., Overmann, K. A., & Coolidge, F. L. (2015). The false dichotomy: A refutation of the Neandertal indistinguishability claim. Journal of Anthropological Sciences, 94, 1–22.Google Scholar
  106. Zhang, S. (2016). Will the alt-right promote a new kind of racist genetics? The Atlantic. Last accessed 31 Oct 2017.
  107. Zilhão, J., Angelucci, D. E., Badal-García, E., d’Errico, F., Daniel, F., Dayet, L., et al. (2010). Symbolic use of marine shells and mineral pigments by Iberian Neandertals. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
  108. Zilhão, J., Banks, W. E., & d’Errico, F. (2015). Analysis of site formation and assemblage integrity does not support attribution of the Uluzzian to modern humans at Grotta del Cavallo. PLoS One.

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Portland State UniversityPortlandUSA
  2. 2.University of VictoriaVictoriaCanada

Personalised recommendations