Monthly Archives: January 2014

Cannibals, monkeys, or civilised beings? What do Neanderthal burials tell us about the start of humanity?

I’ve been thinking lately about human origins, at what point did humans start to be humans and what were we before?

neanderthalOne common answer to this is that there was a kind of technological and cultural revolution at the start of the Upper Paleolithic, 40,000 years ago, when the ancestors of modern humans replaced Neanderthals, and symbolic culture started to appear along with new technologies. In a few accounts I’ve read in the past, Neanderthals were uninventive, but started developing a culture by copying what they saw Homo Sapiens doing.

Evidence seems to be stacking up against the idea that symbolic culture suddenly developed, though. For one thing, the earliest confirmed human burials date from 90,000 years ago. For another, Neanderthals may have been more adaptive than we thought, were using sophisticated hunting tools some 300,000 years ago and may have also made the first cave paintings. Could they have been burying their dead even before modern humans came along?

Evidence of Middle Paleolithic burials are hard to come by because if Neanderthals did bury people at the time they certainly didn’t bury all their dead. They may have buried people with grave goods, but if they did they were simple, like stones and floral tributes. This makes it difficult to say if they were placed intentionally, or just happened to be near the corpses.

One major method of trying to prove that there were burials is to show that middle Paleolithic potential burials share similarities with others from the same time and place. This could indicate that groups of burials were carried out by people according to shared cultural values.

If these studies are to be believed, in the Middle Paleolithic burials were usually for males, with a high number of infants and people with diseases. Neanderthals in the Near East were more likely to be buried with the adults at the front of the cave and children at the back, while in west they were more likely to be buried with tools.

If we’re interested in what Neanderthal culture was like, this tells us very little about their beliefs. Were burials a mark of respect, or a way of dealing with enemies? Were they purely practical, or were they preparing for an afterlife?

I think the thing that tells us most about Neanderthals as people is that they practiced cannibalism, or at least stripping meat from corpses. What it tells us, I’m not sure about. Certainly, cannibalism is practiced by humans for religious reasons. But as a way of disposing of corpses it is also practiced by primates and earlier European Homonids.

It would be nice to have some kind of obvious fact to give you about these early burials. But when dealing with something so long ago, the best we can really do is speculate wildly based on the limited facts we have.

This storm season – spare a thought for Britain’s sunken neighbours

The storms of 2013 destroyed the ancient Porthcothan rock arch in Cornwall
The storms of 2014 destroyed the ancient Porthcothan rock arch in Cornwall

Britain’s been battered by storms this week, and it put me in mind of the cataclysmic storms of millennia gone by that were extreme enough to sink a neighbouring country.

We tend to think of the land bridge between England and Europe as just that: a bridge between two places. But it was, in fact, a country in its own right. A flat, fertile land full of lakes, where the Thames, Meuse, Scheldt, and Rhine rivers joined together and flowed out to the sea.

Doggerland does seem to have gradually shrunk as the sea levels rose at the end of the last Ice Age. Lakes merged with rivers and eventually fell into the sea, pushing people onto higher and higher ground. But what I find interesting is that the land didn’t just gradually sink as the sea rose over it. It seems that it disappeared suddenly and rapidly.

Doggerland, before the floods
Doggerland, before the floods

There are a few theories for how the North Sea suddenly flooded, but the main culprit is the Storegga Slide. In around 6,200 BC a part of the continental shelf around Norway was dislodged by an earthquake and caused a Mega-Tsunami. Waves would have been 80 metres high initially, and would have hit Doggerland at around 10 metres tall. A flood like this can be catastrophic for flat countries.

At around the same time, the remnant Laurentide Ice Sheet collapsed causing the largest North American freshwater pulse in 100,000 years. In a sudden and disastrous surge, the world’s sea level would have risen by 1.4 metres. A small part of Doggerland survived as an island until around 5000 BC. But Britain was suddenly an island, and it would have been the end of Doggerland.

The IPCC currently believes that in the 21st century, sea levels will rise by possibly as much as 82 centimeters. It’s important to note that in the past, climate change has involved sudden, rapid changes as well as gradual ones.

A strange aside is that this change wasn’t necessarily bad for the world. Freshwater pulses seem to be very good for nature as it can release nutrients. It can even be good for civilisation. The sea level rise displaced advanced farmers from the area now under the Black Sea and this seems to have spread the technology rapidly into Europe.

Climate change doesn’t mean the end of the world, or even the end of civilisation. It can be a very good thing for both.

But its easier to see the positives from a distance of a couple of millennia.