posted on 18/07/22
There is growing evidence for Neanderthals having complex cognition and an aesthetic sense, including how they dealt with the dead. We will consider how ancient genetics reveals new understanding and burgeoning proof of interbreeding. The series will conclude with a reflection on what might explain the eventual disappearance of Neanderthals, and what their continuing legacy means for us today.
They take place every Tuesday from 8th to 29th November at 4.30pm (GMT) and, including Q&A, will probably last an hour. They are available for viewing for eight weeks after the last episode is streamed (24th January 2023).
This talk locates the Neanderthals place on the evolutionary hominin ‘family tree’ and their physical similarities and differences to Homo sapiens. It will explore the Pleistocene world, and how Neanderthals fitted into over 300,000 years of dramatic shifts in climate. Long believed to be specifically adapted to extreme cold, today we know their range was far broader. Taking into account the immense geographic area they inhabited – stretching from Wales to Palestine, up into Central Asia and Siberia, it is clear that they were highly adaptable in environmental terms. We will also learn about the history of research, including ‘hidden’ Neanderthals found before 1856, and how changing archaeological methods and discoveries influenced early prehistorians’ understanding of the strange bones that were emerging across Europe.
This lecture delves into the rich archaeological record and reveals Neanderthal minds to have been curious, creative and experimental. It shows how the environments in which they lived produced significant diversity in Neanderthals’ experience as hunter-gatherers. Top hunters of mega-fauna like mammoth, woolly rhino or the extinct horse species Equus mosbachensis, recent research reveals that they also exploited smaller species and plants, depending on the environment. Obvious interest in the quality of their food is echoed in their engagement with the materials around them. Findings from hundreds of sites show that Neanderthals understood material properties, such as how different rock types required varying approaches to produce the tools they needed. The complex question of how Neanderthal lives were organised at the landscape scale will be examined, through patterns in transfers of objects and associations between mobility strategies and different technologies.
Far from lives centred only on survival, one of the most intriguing aspects of our modern view of Neanderthals comes from growing hints that their behaviour went beyond the functional. This talk discusses the question of language and social life, revealing the potential for an emerging aesthetic engagement with materials, and mortuary practices involving the dead. While standards of proof are justifiably high, a growing corpus of evidence exists for an interest in altering the surfaces of objects, including through colour or engravings. Some Neanderthal remains even show evidence of manipulation, one aspect of what may reflect a social interest in the dead. This includes body processing (butchery), cannibalism and intentional deposition (burial) and marking. This complicated topic will be examined from a comparative perspective, revealing how understanding of Neanderthals has shifted over the entire period of their study.
Until only just over a decade ago, one of the few apparent certainties about Neanderthals was the fact of their total extinction, with no contact or interbreeding with Homo sapiens. That picture changed forever in 2010, when the first draft Neanderthal nuclear genome was published, confirming that interbreeding happened and left a genetic legacy in living people. Since then, things have become vastly more complicated, and ever more fascinating, as more genetic samples have become available from Neanderthals and early Homo sapiens, as well as the East Eurasian Denisovans, who are tantalisingly little-known in anatomical or cultural terms. This lecture will bring us right up to date with the latest information drawn from DNA analysis. It will also tackle the ‘denouement’ of the Neanderthals, exploring which factors which potentially played a role in their disappearance as a distinct species, and why.
Archaeologist, author and broadcaster specialising in human origins. Her PhD, awarded in 2010, was the first full appraisal of the late Neanderthals of Britain for two decades. Her book Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art, published by Bloomsbury Sigma in 2020, won the 2021 PEN Hessell-Tiltman prize for history and was Current Archaeology magazine's Book Of The Year. Her articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Times, The Guardian and she has featured on podcasts, including Science Rules! with Bill Nye in the US, and radio, including BBC Radio 4's Start The Week, Front Row, Infinite Monkey Cage and You're Dead To Me and Radio 3’s Freethinking.
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