Neanderthals did not belong to a different species but were actually another form of human, a 20-year study has concluded.
Although portrayed as a more primitive version of us, scientists say that they were as intelligent as we are, had symbolic thought, could create artistic objects, had an extremely varied diet and used fire to cook.
Dr Diego Angelucci, archaeologist at the University of Trento and co-author of the study said: “More than different species, I would speak of different human forms.
“We found no difference: they lived in the caves in similar ways. Their skills are also a sign of intelligence.
“They did not belong to different species, I would say that they were different human forms.”
The team made their reassessment after an analysis of the findings from the Gruta de Oliveira in central Portugal, on excavations from 1989 to 2012.
It is one of the most important European archaeological sites for the Middle Palaeolithic.
The cave is part of the Almonda karst system, a vast network of caves placed at different elevations above a large spring that has been inhabited in different periods during prehistory.
The oldest layers of the Gruta de Oliveira, which includes a number of passages, date back to about 120,000 years ago, the most recent to about 40,000.
It is believed that Neanderthals inhabited this place between 100,000 and 70,000 years ago.
Dr. Angelucci said: “For us, Almonda is a gift that keeps on giving for the variety and quantity of artifacts and remains that we have found over the years: from the remains dating back to the Lower Palaeolithic to the chipped stones of the Mousterian culture, there is really everything.”
The researchers compared the remains of structured fires found in the same location.
Dr Angelucci added: “Based on our findings, we can say with certainty that they habitually ate cooked food.
“This ability confirms that they were as skilled as the sapiens who lived millennia later.
“There is a general agreement among archaeologists that they knew how to use fire.
“However, one thing is to use fire started by natural processes, such as lightning, another is to make it, feed it with wood and use it for cooking, heating and defense.
“In this study, we demonstrate that there is no doubt that Neanderthals could make a fire and that fire was a central element in their daily life.”
Archaeologists found traces of about a dozen hearths intentionally built and used in the cave in an excavation area of about 30 square meters and six meters deep.
The unmistakable basin-like, circular structures were filled with remains. Findings from inside and near the hearths demonstrate that the inhabitants of the caves used to cook their food.
Dr Angelucci added: “We found burnt bones, burnt wood and ash remains. And the rock underneath has been reddened by the heat. This is a crucial detail because it tells us that the structure is in a primary position. And it has always been there.
“We found the remains and burnt bones of cooked goats, deer, horses, aurochs, rhinos and turtles, which were probably laid on their carapace and stewed on hot stones.”
However, they could not find out how they started fire, with Dr Angelucci saying: “Perhaps they did as in Neolithic times, striking flint rocks against another rock to throw sparks on a tinder, such as a dry nest for example.
“This is a prehistoric technique that was discovered by studying Ötzi, the Ice man. So far, however, we have found no evidence of this.
“Fire is a fundamental element in their daily lives. It makes the place comfortable and helps socialization. It gives back that basic idea of ‘home’ that perhaps could also apply to them.”
Comparing the cave to others in the area after Homo Sapiens had moved there, the team could find no difference in how they lived to Neanderthals.
The study was published in the journal PLOS ONE.
Produced in association with SWNS Talker
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