Neanderthals have gotten a bad rap. An incorrect analysis of a skeleton excavated in 1908 provided a mistaken view that was universally accepted by paleoanthropologists for decades: that Neanderthals were dull-witted, ape-like creatures. This cavemen image still persists, yet it is in stark contrast to the more recent archaeological record. In actuality, Neanderthals created good quality flint tools, often reworked them, and were actually extremely good at recycling, as were later cultures that followed.
More Neanderthal skeletons have been found than any other ancient human species—over 400. They lived in Europe and Southwest Asia from at least 130,000 years ago. Neanderthal-like skull characteristics have been found in 400,000 year old fossils from Spain. The Neanderthals adapted physically and culturally to the ice age conditions that prevailed during much of their time and survived in Europe through a number of ice ages, dying out less than 30,000 years ago.
Recent investigations at an iconic cave site on the Channel Island of Jersey off the coast of Normandy have led archaeologists to believe that Neanderthals have been widely underestimated. The site at La Cotte de St Brelade reveals a near-continuous use of the cave site spanning over a quarter of a million years, suggesting a considerable success story in adapting to a changing climate and landscape, prior to the arrival of Homo sapiens.
The La Cotte ravine has revealed the most prolific collection of early Neanderthal technology in North West Europe, including over 250,000 stone tools. These include stones with sharpened edges that could be used to cut or chop, known as hand axes.
“Archaeologists have developed new ways of looking at stone tools since La Cotte de St Brelade was excavated in the 1970s,” says Dr. Beccy Scott from the British Museum and the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project. “We have been using these techniques to look at how Neanderthals were making and using the tools they left at La Cotte.”
The huge amounts of carefully manufactured tools show how technologically skilled early Neanderthal groups were. “Neanderthals were traveling to Jersey already equipped with good quality flint tools, then reworked them, very carefully so as not to waste anything. They were extremely good at recycling.” La Cotte’s collapsed cave system contains intact ice age sediments spanning a quarter of a million years, revealing a detailed sequence of Neanderthal occupation and occasional abandonment, against a background of changing climate. “The site is the most exceptional long-term record of Neanderthal behavior in North West Europe,” says Dr. Matt Pope from the Institute of Archaeology at University College London. “At La Cotte, we get to see far more than a glimpse of their behavior, we get to see generation upon generation of Neanderthals returning to the same place under lots of different environmental conditions.” Jersey at this time was linked to mainland Europe and La Cotte would have been a sheltered cave, allowing occupation.
Neanderthals abandoned the site during the coldest, glacial phases, when much of Britain was frozen. Understanding how they reacted to the onset of these cold periods will allow archaeologists a greater insight into the limits of Neanderthal tolerances.
The site has been the focus of archaeological research for over 100 years and scientists believe more discoveries are yet to be made. Other excavations at the Wylotne Shelter in Poland have uncovered eight geological levels and have also discovered evidence of Neanderthal recycling. It is very easy to come up with a theory about recycling in prehistory: that early people utilized raw material to the highest degree, processing abandoned tools, repairing and transforming them. But it is far more difficult to prove such a theory. It is only made possible by studying refitting of flint artifacts obtained from very careful excavations.
Eight geological levels were distinguished during the excavations. As a consequence of post-depositional processes, many of the tools discovered underwent repetitive destructions and translocations. Owing to thorough field documentation it is possible to follow relations indicating their original purpose and eventual reuse. Here are just two examples.
Knife: Side-Scraper
A knife composed of two fragments, broken because of natural reasons, gives a side-scraper. There were some other intentionally knapped flakes conjoining the sidescraper. The reconstructed original tool is a knife with bifacial retouch. The knife was reduced right down through repeated repair and was then reshaped into a scraper.
Hand-Axe: Knife
The block is composed of two fragments; there are very clear differences in the patina covering the two pieces. Originally a heart-shaped hand-axe was made, planoconvex in section. As a result of low temperatures a fragment of the tool fell off, resulting in a backed edge. A slight retouch of the point and repairing the sharp working edge then produced a knife. In both these cases, we cannot know who has reshaped the tools. Was it one person, producing and repairing tools, which he or she used? Or, maybe many years later, someone else took the abandoned, destroyed artifact and gave a new function to it. But one thing is clear: more than 30,000 years ago, Neanderthals were actively recycling.
Fast-forward about 25,000 years from Europe to the swampy jungles of current-day eastern Mexico, and you’ll find the origins of civilization in Mesoamerica that are associated mainly with the rise of the precocious Olmec civilization around 1250 B.C. The Olmecs also recycled … on a monumental scale.
Building on the advent of agriculture and settled village life which preceded them, the Olmec created Mesoamerica’s first major art style and organized religion and constructed the region’s first ceremonial architecture during the late part of the Early Formative Period (1200-900 B.C.). Considered the “mother culture” of Mesoamerica and recognized as America’s oldest civilization, the people known today as the Olmec developed an iconic and sophisticated artistic style as early as the second millennium B.C.
The Olmec are best known for the creation of colossal heads carved from giant boulders that have fascinated the public and archaeologists alike since they were discovered in the mid-19th century. The monumental heads remain among ancient America’s most awe-inspiring and beautiful masterpieces today. Seventeen colossal heads have been unearthed to date. As no known pre-Columbian text explains them, these impressive monuments have been the subject of much speculation. Once theorized to be ballplayers, it is now generally accepted that these heads are portraits of rulers, perhaps dressed as ballplayers. Infused with individuality, no two heads are alike and the helmet-like headdresses are adorned with distinctive elements, suggesting personal or group symbols.
The heads were carved from single blocks or boulders of volcanic basalt, found in the Tuxtlas Mountains. The Tres Zapotes heads, for example, were sculpted from basalt found at the summit of Cerro el Vigía, at the western end of the Tuxtlas. The San Lorenzo and La Venta heads, on the other hand, were likely carved from the basalt of Cerro Cintepec, on the southeastern side, perhaps at the nearby Llano del Jicaro workshop, and dragged or floated to their final destination dozens of miles away. It has been estimated that moving a colossal head required the efforts of 1,500 people for three to four months.
Some of the heads, and many other monuments, have been variously mutilated, buried and disinterred, reset in new locations and/or reburied. Some monuments, and at least two heads, were recycled or recarved, but it is not known whether this was simply due to the scarcity of stone or whether these actions had ritual or other connotations. Scholars believe that some mutilation had significance beyond mere destruction, but some scholars still do not rule out internal conflicts or, less likely, invasion as a factor. According to Ann Cyphers, noted Olmec researcher and archaeologist, “The contexts and settings presented illustrate the mutual involvement of ideological legitimation and economics as a basis of elite interests. The display of rulership may be directly associated with the control of two resources, water and stone. The use and regular reuse of exotic materials reflects Olmec pragmatism in making important decisions affecting the display of ideology and its transformation through recycling.
“An intense in situ focus on monument erection physically associated with a constructed water channel, as yet not fully excavated, suggests control of water sources as one potential power base in a clearly non-egalitarian social context. Moreover, I suggest that an elite monopolized the use of exotic stone in its own monuments. Such limitation of the distribution of exotic stone, combined with the consistent evidence of reuse and reworking of old pieces, may well indicate that such materials were themselves sacralized.”
Were the Olmecs recycling and recarving monuments simply because the large blocks of basalt were scarce? Or was there some sacred or ritual intent? We will likely never know. But the evidence found in the San Lorenzo stone carving workshops clearly states that more than 4,000 years ago, there was an an “Olmec ideology” being practiced that included an active investment recovery program in modern day Mexico.
NEXT ISSUE: The Vikings and ancient Romans proved to be adept at recycling weapons and pottery.
Sources: Olmec Art in Social Context at San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan, Ann Cyphers, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, published by Dumbarton Oaks Research Library, Washington, D.C. “How the Olmec used bitumen in ancient Mesoamerica,” Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, Volume 27, Issue 2, June 2008, Carl J. Wendt, Ann Cyphers ANCIENT AMERICAS: Maya, Aztec, Inka & Beyond, Nicholas J. Saunders Dagmara Mañka: Institute of Archeology and Ethnology, Polish Academy of Science “Digging For Britain”, Becky E