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Neanderthals Getting a Colorful Upgrade

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A chorus of smart, modern minds is rising over the hills of anthropology that the ancient Neanderthals of Europe weren't anywhere nearly as dumb, insufferable and unrecognizable as everyone thought all these years. At long last, these creatures who roamed the Continent for hundreds of thousands of years only to become extinct 30,000 years ago under the onslaught of modern humans from Africa are getting a major upgrade by the scientific community.

No more can we say that old Neanderthal -- prototype of shaggy man with absolutely zero smarts -- didn't know what he was doing. And no more can we deny it: They were not a little bit like us but a lot. As Professor David Frayer, Neanderthal expert at the University of Kansas, puts it, with not a little hint of told-you-so scientific glee, "Seemingly with every new journal issue, the gap between Neanderthal and modern human behavior closes."

Bringing the Neanderthals in from the cold and the dark is the new thing in anthropology. In the last five years alone, Frayer explains, evidence has emerged of Neanderthal skills in "seafaring, use of ochre, intentional burials, feather-ornament-pigment procurement, ritual behavior, modern-like food preparation, distribution of raw materials between regions, complex site structures and dietary diversity." That is a mouthful of crafts and cultural know-how that, ever since the first Neanderthal skull was discovered in Germany in 1856, probably no one would have ever dreamed of linking to these much-laughed-at, oft-spurned creatures.

Intriguingly, it turns out that it wasn't such a black-and-white world back then, either. The use of red ochre is a particular case in point that reinforces the claim. Earlier this year, scientists reported that Neanderthals living in northwest Europe brought bright-red ochre into camp 200,000 years earlier than at any other site, pushing back the dawn of the collection and use of iron oxide on the Continent to a time when mankind in Africa was first doing the same.

The red ochre in question, discovered near Maastricht, where bright minds invented the European Union way back in 1992, amounts to tiny traces of hematite, from which ochre comes, lying in sediments of the Maas River.The site dates to 250,000 years ago, and possibly even 350,000. Previous red ochre finds at Neanderthal sites in Europe date to only 60,000 years ago.

That the Dutch Neanderthals were dabbling in things that their supposedly much-smarter contemporaries in Africa were also trying out links the two in time in ways no one had ever imagined. Until now, says Frayer, Africa was considered the place of origin for the use of red ochre, by ancestors of modern humans whose descendants brought the skill to Europe much much later and gave us, among other marvels, wildly beautiful and awe-inspiring cave paintings.

But just as scientists do not know exactly what the pre-modern Africans were doing with red ochre, they don't know what the Neanderthals in the Netherlands 250,000 years ago were doing with it either. Most observers leap to purely symbolic meanings -- all part of our natural desire to see kinship with all those rough ancestors -- but any number of explanations of a more mundane sort could be true. The point is, however, that these early creatures were using it, manipulating it for a reason -- and of course that implies volition and purpose, qualities that we tend to like in another human being and latch on to as signs of something like fraternity.

The Dutch Neanderthals brought the hematite to their camp from natural deposits at least 40 kilometers away in the Belgian Ardennes, ground it to bits and mixed it with water, and then for some reason left behind 15 tell-tale splotches of the liquid here and there on the floor of the site. Their camp was located in a river valley during the late Middle Pleistocene before the next to last Ice Age, which is getting back there in time. Shellfish were abundant and there was dense vegetation, so it was a nice, warm place, and things were happening: hunting and butchering (red deer and rhinoceros), hide-working, fire-making and flint-knapping, all your usual early-man stuff.

While the lead researcher on this discovery, Professor Wil Roebroeks of Leiden University, insists that no conclusions can be drawn regarding the use of hematite at this site, he suggests a wide range of possible activities, such as "helping to keep hides from rotting or to make them more impermeable, or as insect repellant, or to decorate their bodies.'' It even could have been some form of medication (injuries were rife) or been used an adherent for making tools (they were good at this). Since none of the many pieces of flint and bone at the site had red ochre on it, clues to what these Neanderthals were really doing are pretty much nonexistent.

That leaves us with an incomplete investigation of some delicate traces of Neanderthal behavior, but an intriguing set of clues that, without too much of an imaginative leap, shed positive light on the rising smarts of these early cousins.

Frayer notes that "much of the optic that viewed Neanderthals as incompetent 'non-ancestors' was based on negative evidence. That is, because evidence for complex behavior was not found by early-to-mid-20th-century excavation techniques, Neanderthals were labeled as dummies. But the excavation techniques then were poor and the early archaeologists were not looking for this kind of evidence anyway. Unfortunately, for the most part we cannot go back to the sites and get the missing information."

Despite this, we have ample evidence of family-people-type behavior in Neanderthals. "For example,'' says Frayer, "they buried their dead, at least once in a cemetery, and included newborns, adolescents and adults." That is amazing by any standard of complexity. He adds, "At least one site -- Shanidar in Iraq -- had flowers and pine boughs in a grave, and at a French site -- La Ferrassie -- a modified stone which may have been a grave marker. The head was separated from the torso, and both were buried in different spots in the grave."

This emerging 3-D picture of Neanderthals pulls them out of the shaggy dark confines of ignorance and into the light of industriousness and plain old humanity.

That said, Roebroeks doesn't want to make a mountain out of the tiny red ochre spots. "People rapidly jump to conclusions about what can be drawn from these findings as to their symbolism." What is certain is that the hematite slurry these fellows made was not an accident: Something was up. And just because whatever they were doing was "low-tech," as Roebroeks puts it, that doesn't mean these guys didn't know a complex thing or two: After all, Neanderthals 250,000 year ago were already skilled at making glue -- from birch bark -- probably to help bind points to spears and the like, a process that implies deliberate, inventive and above all rational thinking.

In the end, the Dutch Neanderthals weren't a bunch of klutzes thumping around killing red deer and slurping down mollusks and telling knock-knock jokes by the fire (yes, it's quite probable they had language, Frayer notes, because they were all mostly right-handed, meaning that the communication center in the left side of the brain was firing away) as they waited for the cooler dudes from Africa to show up in a couple hundred thousand years and take over the place.

They were a hardy, industrious people living in trying times who were clearly self-aware and knew what they were doing in order to survive, who were practical and highly organized, had a complex material culture, who cared closely for their own -- and even more astonishingly may have had at least some concept of a possible afterlife (why else would you bury your dead in a ritual manner), which, if true, connects them to us in infinitely brotherly ways.

Frayer has a compassionate conclusion as the mysteries of the Neanderthals get solved, discovery by discovery: "The old idea of Neanderthals as incompetents is based on a long history of paleo-discrimination, related more to an attitude and to the absence of information than to fact. Combine this with their likely linguistic ability and their genetic link to moderns, and Neanderthals are more and more like us Europeans. It is about time for everyone to get over the decades of excluding them from our prehistory and welcome them into the house."