Paleontologists believe Neanderthal man to have lived in the world from 100,000 to 40,000 years ago, a period that began in a warm interglacial phase but included the last ice age (70,000 years ago) as well.
Thus these primitive humans, found predominantly in Western Europe and the Mideast but as far north as southern Siberia, confronted a wide range of climatic conditions and survived acute cold in some very inhospitable regions. To do this they must have developed a shrewd knowledge of the natural world, as well as the quite sophisticated technology that is manifested in their artifacts.
The sensational images of Quest for Fire aside, our primitive forebears had fire, and they built shelters with proper ventilation to accommodate indoor hearths. Wood provided fuel and building material for the shelters, and where this was scarce, animal bones were substituted. In many instances the Neanderthals lived in caves. The size of their communities has not been conclusively shown, but the number was likely determined by how many the local resources could support, and may have averaged about 25.
The Neanderthals left their predecessor Homo erectus far behind when it came to toolmaking. Their culture, broadly characterized as Mousterian after Le Moustier, a cave in the Dordogne, France, had tool kits with some 60 identifiable items.
Among them were knives, scrapers, and projectiles, fashioned by the Levalloisian technique of flaking. A single rock was split into a number of flakes, each of which became a core from which a tool was shaped. Homo erectus, on the other hand, would have obtained only one tool per rock, using the Acheulean technique of simply paring down the stone to the desired shape. According to Richard E. Leakey, the Levalloisian technique could produce seven feet of cutting edge from 2.2 pounds of flint, five times as much as might be generated by the Acheulean method.
Some of these tools were useful when it came to hunting, although the Neanderthal favored gentle herbivorous mammals whenever possible. Goat, sheep, wild cattle, pig, and land tortoise were common game; bear, deer, fox, and marten posed a bit more of a challenge.
A group of hunters would run a herd over a cliff, or into dead-end areas such as canyons where the animals could be caught and slaughtered. Single-handed hunting may have occurred, but the communal approach is more likely, according to Professor Ralph S. Solecki of Columbia University, who excavated Neanderthal bones in the Shanidar Cave in Iraq.
Solecki’s findings, together with those of Arlette LeroiGourhan of the Musee de l’Homme in Paris, add a touching note to the culture and sensibility of the primitive men, once thought to be little more than apes. We find here the first instance of ritual burial. Among the food and tools buried with a person, to sustain him in death or in the passage to another life, were flowers. Whether for their medicinal properties or simply their beauty and comfort, yarrow, cornflower, grape hyacinth, hollyhock, and woody horsetail were collected and spread like a blanket on which to lay the dead.
The novel image of these people gathering at the graveside with bunches of blue and yellow flowers suggests a spiritual and emotional world at odds with our popular conceptions of the Neaderthals.